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Gaetano DONIZETTI (1797-1848)
Pia de’ Tolomei - Tragedia lyrica in two acts (1837)
Libretto by Salvatore Cammarano based on the 5th canto of Dante’s Purgatory.
First performed at the Teatro Apollo, Venice, 18th February 1837
Pia, wife of Nello, Patrizia Ciofi (sop); Rodrigo, Pia’s brother, Laura Polverelli (mezzo); Ghino, cousin of Nello, Dario Schmunck (ten); Nello, Andrew Schroeder (bar); Ubaldo, Nello’s servant, Francesco Meli (ten); Pierro, a hermit, Daniel Borowski (bass); Bice, Pia’s waiting woman, Clara Polito (sop)
Orchestra and chorus of the Teatro La Fenice, Venice/Paola Arrivabeni
Performed in the Critical Edition prepared by Giorgio Pagannone for the Donizetti Foundation, Bergamo
Artistic director, Sergio Segalini. Sets by Thierry Leproust. Costumes by Claude Masson. Lighting by Marc Delaméziere
Video Director Tiziano Mancini
Recorded in High Definition. Presented in dts digital surround sound, Dolby, PCM 2.0
Menu language English. Subtitles in Italian (original language), English, German, French, Spanish and Chinese. Notes and synopsis in Italian, English, German and French
DYNAMIC DVD 33488 [2 DVDs: 137:00]

Donizetti wrote Pia de’Tolomei to fulfil a commission from the impresario of the Teatro La Fenice in Venice. It is his 52nd operatic title.

With the writing complete he left Naples for Florence. Naples was in the grip of a cholera epidemic and Donizetti was quarantined in Genoa for eighteen days. Whilst there Donizetti learned that La Fenice, the premier theatre in Venice, had been destroyed by fire on the night of December 12th 1836. The La Fenice season was transferred to the smaller Teatro Apollo. Reluctantly, the composer whose fee was already less than he would have received in Naples or Milan, agreed to a reduction. The opera reached the stage on 18th February 1837.

Although the story of Cammarano’s libretto can be traced back to Dante’s Purgatorio, it more likely derives from contemporary plays performed in Naples and which involved something of the true-life story of Pia. In the opera Pia, wife of the Ghibelline leader Nello (bar), has been propositioned by Ghino (ten) her husband’s cousin and whose advances she had rejected. Her husband sends Pia to safety from battles with opposing Guelphs. Whilst there Ghino learns that Pia has had a letter indicating a male visitor and believing this to be a lover reveals the facts to her husband who in despair orders her to be poisoned. In fact the male visitor is her brother Rodrigo (mezzo) who fights for the Guelphs and who she has assisted in escaping from prison. Her husband further imprisons her in Maremma, a place of damp and fever and Ghino arrives and offers to help her in exchange for love. When Ghino learns that Pia’s supposed lover was in fact her brother she persuades him to tell her husband the truth. On the way he is wounded by Guelphs and by the time Nello learns the facts and rushes to Pia he arrives too late to stop the poison being administered and Pia dies.

At its premiere the opera was modestly received with disapproval expressed about the finale to act 1. Donizetti rewrote this finale with revised stretta during the Venice Carnival. He made more radical alterations for performances at the Adriatic resort of Siningaglia in July 1837 and for Naples, in September 1838, when the censors forced him to write a happy ending to the whole work! This performance at the recently rebuilt La Fenice (yet another fire) follows the Critical Edition prepared by Giorgio Pagannone for the Donizetti Foundation, Bergamo.

The sets for the production are of the simplest, frequently involving sliding screens and drops with letters and words on them. In the prison scene the backdrop has bars whilst a visually very imposing guard stands, legs apart, in relief against imaginative lighting. Costumes are in period and probably cost nearly as much as the set. With the use of imaginative lighting throughout, the whole production is effective both visually and dramatically. For a relatively heard work, which will get few revivals and doubtless operating within a restricted budget, the outcome for me is fine and far better than an updating with a quirky producer concept!

As I indicate in my review of the contemporaneous Opera Rara CD release of the opera (review), the music has some echoes of Donizetti’s own music from this period as well as that of Bellini. Although Pia de’ Tolomei may not have the melodic invention and cohesion of Lucia di Lamermoor, the composer’s 47th title premiered in September 1835, it has excellent lyrical and dramatic passages for soloists in arias, duets and particularly ensembles. One of the best examples, and a most effective scene, is that between the tenor villain Ghino and Pia’s husband Nello (D1 Chs. 4-5) with chords reminiscent of the duet between Edgardo and Enrico in Lucia, but which goes on to its own distinctive development; the cabaletta is distinctly Verdian in its overtones. Both roles require singers with vocal heft as well as tonal richness and variety. As Ghino Dario Schmunck has a tightly focused tenor that is stretched from time to time by the dramatic demands of the role. In critical passages such as when Ghino threatens to take his life at Pia’s refusal of his love, Schmunck’s body language and vocal expression are not up to it (DVD2 Ch. 4). Andrew Schroeder as the doubting husband Nello has a strong voice and acts well and will, I hope, develop a greater tonal palette. The bass voice of Daniel Borowski in the incidental role of the hermit is strong and sonorous.

Patrizia Ciofi as Pia conveys the role’s many situations most convincingly. Hers is an outstandingly distinguished portrayal in the intensity of her acting and singing. She does not have quite the security in the florid passages of Majella Cullagh in the Opera Rara issue, but more than compensates in the more dramatic scenes. This is nowhere more evident than in the pivotal scene when Pia convinces Ghino of her innocence and persuades him to go to her husband and reveal the truth as to her nocturnal visitor (D2 Chs. 3-4). In this scene Patrizia Ciofi’s phrasing, expression and colouring are a delight. Given the intensity and conviction of her portrayal the odd moment of unsteadiness is readily forgiven. As Pia’s brother Rodrigo, Laura Polverelli sings with full rounded tone and acts well in the travesti role. In the dungeon scene her singing is pliant, expressive and with smooth legato and secure decoration (D1 Ch. 7). The visual effect of the prison guard, as I have indicated, is impressive. I regret that the handling of Rodrigo’s escape is less so. Laura Polverelli’s act 2 aria when Rodrigo learns of Nino’s imprisonment of Pia in Maremma, and his intention to kill her, and the subsequent cabaletta A me stesso un Dio mi rende is a vocal highlight of the performance (D2 Ch. 2). Miss Polverelli fully deserves the warm applause she gets at the end of the opera. On the rostrum Paola Arrivabeni has an idiomatic feel for the bel canto idiom, whilst the chorus are disciplined and vibrant in their limited opportunities.

This DVD set from Dynamic is denoted as being ‘Recorded in High Definition’. My DVD player might be superior but my TV is not High Definition and which I gather is the coming technology. With that in mind, the picture was crystal clear and accommodated the various imaginative lighting effects. The sound via my hi-fi and reference speakers was warm, clear and with good body and perspective. The accompanying leaflet has an excellent essay on the genesis of the opera and a brief synopsis, all in four languages.

Performed a mere five months before its appearance on DVD, this Dynamic label release enables lovers of Donizetti’s music to see a staging of one of his dramatic works other than Lucia. It is also a perfect complement to the audio recording from Opera Rara that also contains the alternative and additional music the composer made to the opera after its premiere. Highly recommended.

Robert J Farr




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