Pia de’ Tolomei, English Touring Opera, ETO, Hackney Empire, March 2016Posted on 11 March 2016
While working on the Siege of Calais, performed by the ETO this time last year, Donizetti and his librettist wanted to duplicate their great success with Lucia di Lammermoor. Casting around for another gentle and loving heroine, whose death would evoke huge pathos, they settled on Pia de’ Tolomei from Dante’s Purgatorio, and in James Conway’s simple but illuminating production Dante’s words appear just before the end, Ricorditi di me, che son la Pia; Siena mi fé, disfecemi Maremma (Remember me, the one who is Pia; Siena made me, Maremma undid me).
Born in Siena, murdered in her husband’s castle at Maremma, Pia is beset by determined men, her husband Nello (baritone), and his kinsman Ghino (tenor) who is insanely jealous of her meeting another man, not knowing him to be her brother. His offer to save her honour if she becomes his mistress she rejects in Act II, and Ghino is devastated when he learns that the ‘lover’ was her brother. He has already denounced her to Nello, who then ordered her poisoning, but after Ghino, dying from wounds in battle, tells Nello of his error, reconciliation comes just too late to save the blameless Pia.
Marvellous stuff, the very soul of Italian opera in the 1830s, sung here in glorious bel canto style by the beautiful Elena Xanthoudakis as Pia. She along with the bold, clear baritone and expressive acting of Grant Doyle as her husband Nello, and the strongly lyrical tenor of Luciano Botelho as Ghino, headed a cast of exceptional vocal talent that brought the drama very much to life under the excellent baton of John Andrews.
When Donizetti and his librettist Cammarano were searching for a topic they stumbled on a novella about Pia, written some dozen years earlier, and later two new plays on the same topic. Intended for La Fenice in Venice, the resident impresario insisted on a part for his new favourite, a young mezzo, and Donizetti made Pia’s brother a trouser role, sung here with superb emotional anguish by Catherine Carby. Fine singing from John-Colyn Gyeantey as Ghino’s servant, Craig Smith as retainer of the Tolomei, and Piotr Lempa as a hermit, with Susanna Fairbairn showing excellent vocal emotion as Pia’s principal lady in waiting, this cast and chorus gave a wonderful rendering of Donizetti’s opera, making one regret it has been so neglected.
Congratulations to the ETO for this recreation, with simple sets that help the singers project, fine costumes by Loren Elstein, subtle lighting changes by Guy Hoare, and well thought out stage direction by James Conway. For anyone who enjoys bel canto opera this is unmissable, and lucky are those near one of the theatres staging it.
Performances continue at the following venues: Snape Maltings Concert Hall, 7th Apr; Everyman Theatre, Cheltenham, 12th Apr; Buxton Opera House, 24th Apr; Cambridge Arts Theatre, 26th Apr; Exeter Northcott Theatre, 24th May; York Theatre Royal, 3rd June — for details click here.