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Donizetti, Pia de’ Tolomei Soloists, Geoffrey Mitchell Choir, London Philharmonic Orchestra/David Parry, RFH, Saturday, October 23rd, 2004 (CC)


The week preceding this concert performance of rare Donizetti was taken up with recording sessions. To present Pia de’Tolomei at all is a work of substantial musicological archaeology: it was not published complete during the composer’s lifetime and the critical edition was only published this year.


Pia has a complex performance history anyway, given that the Act I finale incurred the displeasure of its initial audience (Teatro Apollo, Venice, on February 18th, 1837) and so the composer, ever willing to oblige, created a revision for Senigallia. The reason for all this background is to point out that the concert performance we heard was based on the original Venetian text, but with the Senigallia Act I ending, thus presenting Donizetti’s last thought on the matter, although the recording will present the original. Interestingly, the libretto we were provided with did not entirely follow what we heard. A disorienting cut very early on did not help confidence (in fairness there were only a couple of other, shorter, cuts).


Pia was resurrected in 1967, in Siena. It was even heard in London in 1978, but presumably never since. Which is a shame. The story is a tragic one, set in the year 1260. Right at the beginning, Pia has been sent away from Siena to a castle for her own protection because of ongoing wars. This is a story of mistaken identity and motive. Pia’s husband, Nello, has intercepted a letter in which an assumed lover describes an intended meeting with Pia. To complicate matters, Nello’s cousin, Ghino dell’ Armieri, tries to engineer a situation in which Pia is caught out as Ghino has himself had his amorous advances rejected by Pia.


The mysterious visitor is none other than Rodrigo de’ Tolomei, Pia’s brother. Rodrigo languishes in prison, but is freed by a bribed guard. Alas, Pia is incarcerated in a castle in marshlands of the Maremma, where Nello intends she should contract malaria. Rodrigo races to rescue his beloved; meanwhile Ghino tries his luck again, learning in the process of his mistake in thinking her brother a beau. Instruction is then received from Nello to put Pia to death at dawn, unless said instruction is revoked.


A mandatory storm and (the greatest contradiction of them all) a Chorus of Hermits set the weather. Ghino - at the last moment after having been fatally wounded - reveals his mistake, begging for forgiveness from Nello. Nello refuses forgiveness, but rushes to the castle to arrive before dawn. Needless to say he is too late. Pia has drunk poison; (re-enter) Rodrigo. Just before she dies, Pia manages to reconcile husband and brother.


Just about all the ingredients you could want with plenty of scope for florid, expressive arias, and even a Mad Scene. Such a challenge needs a strong line-up of singers. Some Opera Rara favourites of course were here, but what struck one more forcibly was the consistently excellent diction of every single singer.


Pia herself was Majella Cullagh, strong and confident. Her legato was superb, her high register magnificent and her way with Donizetti’s fast-moving lines as to the manner born. Perhaps her finest moment came towards the end, in the dark aria, ‘Ah! La pietade, o Ghino’, almost heart-breakingly tender in its expressive scope. Her brother Rodrigo is actually sung by a female (mezzo), here the truly excellent Manuala Custer, who almost upstaged the heroine. A protegée of Katia Ricciarelli, Custer has previously appeared on Opera Rara in Rossini’s Zelmira. She has a remarkably strong, yet agile, instrument in her voice, and was superbly expressive in her aria, ‘In questa de’ viventi orrida tomba’. Rodrigo’s vengeance aria in Act II, ‘Tremenda folgore il brando mia sarà’, revealed how strong her upper register is, also. When Pia and Rodrigo were heard in duet, magic was the result.


Bruce Ford took the part of Ghino. He was expressive, and his voice held enough beauty to make a creditable assumption. Roberto Servile’s Nello was preferable though and it was nice to hear a baritone with an imposing depth to the voice. His Act I aria, ‘Parea celeste spirito’ was one of the evening’s highlights. Marco Vinco’s Lamberto was marvellously warm-toned.


Even the smaller roles were well parted, from a well-projected tenor Prison Guard (Christopher Turner) to Mark Wilde’s velvet-toned yet authoritative Ubaldo (only later on did his tone become thinner) and Mirco Palazzi’s rounded Piero (one of the hermits).


The recording is eagerly awaited.


Colin Clarke



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