composed Pia de’ Tolomei during the summer and autumn
of 1836 in Naples, where he was living at the time. In December
he set out for Venice, where the premiere was planned for February
the next year at the Teatro La Fenice He travelled via Livorno
and Genoa but when he arrived in Genoa he was met by the news
that the theatre had been destroyed by fire on the night of
12/13 December. He realized that there was a great risk that
the premiere would be jeopardized. However the production was
moved to Teatro Apollo and the premiere took place on 18 February
1837 as planned. Fanny Persiani, who had been the first Lucia
di Lammermoor a couple of years earlier, took the title role.
The opera was not an immediate success and Donizetti reworked
it twice. The second time was for Naples in 1838, where the
censors enforced important changes and a happy ending. The present
production is based on the critical edition published by Ricordi,
where the original tragic finale is restored.
often repeats itself and on 29 January 1996 Teatro La Fenice
was again destroyed by fire. After seven years of intense reconstruction
work a Phoenix arose from the ashes. Its inauguration took place
on 14 December 2003, almost to the day 167 years after that
first disaster. When Pia de’ Tolomei was scheduled less
than 1½ years later the performances were carried through without
mishap and the result can be seen and heard on this wholly attractive
set of DVDs.
is it attractive? I’ve read that this is one the worst of Donizetti’s
operas.” I can hear more than one jaded opera-freak’s distrustful
grumble. Yes, I have read that too and I wasn’t all that hopeful
when I started viewing. Things began badly by mistake I started
playing the second disc first and ended up hopelessly at sea.
“What has happened before and why don’t we know that?” was my
reaction. I shouldn’t blame Dynamic but since the disc I put
in my player was in its usual place on the right-hand side of
the opened box and to the left was the booklet, I didn’t even
notice the admittedly very large 2 on the label. Unfortunately disc 1 was obscured
by the booklet. However, when starting from the beginning, I
found the plot and layout fully comprehensible – which is not
always the case with these more obscure operatic byways. The
origin of the story is to be found in a few lines in Dante’s
Divina Commedia and according to some scholars they refer
to events in the poet’s own time, taking place in 1297. A poem
on the subject had been published in 1822 and in April 1836
a play by Giacinto Bianco was staged in Naples. Donizetti must
have known it and been inspired by it. His librettist Salvadore
Cammarano was no mean author – no one can deny the dramatic
qualities of Lucia di Lammermoor. This drama unfolds
with few digressions from the main story in what is certainly
a clear-cut libretto.
plot goes along these lines: Ghino is in love with Pia but she
is married to Nello, his cousin, and turns him down. In revenge
he informs Nello that Pia is going to have a secret meeting
with a lover. Her visitor is however her brother Rodrigo, who
has just escaped from captivity. Rodrigo manages to escape Nello’s
guards but Pia refuses to tell her husband who the visitor was
and is condemned to imprisonment for life in his castle. Ghino
visits her there and promises to set her free if she becomes
his. She tells him who the visitor was and Ghino decides to
tell Nello the truth. On his way he is attacked and mortally
wounded. He manages to tell Nello about Pia’s innocence and
Nello rushes to the castle to save her, since he has ordered
Ubaldo to poison her. He arrives too late but before she dies
Pia reconciles her brother to her husband. OK, this may not
be a masterpiece of a story or a libretto but there are standard
works that are not one iota better.
the music is fully worthy of the drama. Rarely in Donizetti’s
operas is everything perfect. This was his 61st opera
in twenty years – if we include often far-reaching revisions
of some works. There was little time for him to go back and
tidy up details. In most of his works he tends to lapse into
clichés. That said, it is remarkable how often he avoids the
temptation; how frequently he finds new expressions, new structures.
In Pia de’ Tolomei he has long abandoned the recitative-aria-recitative
pattern and builds long, continuous scenes – not seamless as
later Verdi but still pointing forward to his brilliant successor.
He is stuck in the aria-cabaletta pattern, rather along the
same lines as middle period Verdi. In addition he far too often
builds the cabalettas and other numbers on the almost mechanical
rum-ti-tum rhythm with which we are also well acquainted from
early and middle Verdi. But it really doesn’t matter as long
as it is captivating – and very often with Donizetti it is.
The opening chorus of act 2 – the first thing I heard in my
reverse-order listening – is one stirring example. Rodrigo,
a trouser role, has a rousing cabaletta in the dungeon scene
in act 1 and in the same act there is a fine cabaletta duet
for tenor and baritone that should be a splendid recital item.
More original are Pia’s big solos which make her a close relative
to the likewise ill-fated Lucia di Lammermoor. Technically this
role requires the same amount of florid singing and sensitive
pianissimo singing and it should be an attractive role for any
good lyric-dramatic soprano. The leading tenor also has a couple
of vocally and dramatically attractive arias. Then there is
a beautiful duet for Pia and her brother Rodrigo – for soprano
and mezzo-soprano – accompanied by plucked strings.
the production is visually pleasing. The sets are of the modern-minimalist
kind, with strict geometrical constructions and evocative lighting.
Sometimes screens with texts are inserted. The costumes are
timelessly-historical, if you can accept the contradiction in
terms. The soldiers’ armoury could be anything from late 13th
century to the Thirty Years’ War while Pia’s nightdress could
be from the latest issue of Vogue. The grouping of the
soldiers in the mass-scenes is also decorative though hardly
based on dramatic necessity.
the singing and acting of the principals is uniformly at the
highest level. It has been a long time since I saw a DVD production
with such high quality singing even from the comprimarios. Patrizia
Ciofi’s Pia is ravishingly sung, deeply felt and convincingly
acted. She seems in a state of mental disturbance from the very
outset - an innocent victim. Technically speaking she is brilliant
with fluent coloratura and the gift of delicate embellishments.
Dario Schmunck is a lyrical and ardent Ghino – a singer I eagerly
look forward to hearing again. His acting may be rather reticent
but is still efficient. Andrew Schroeder is a powerful and dramatic
Nello and sings with glowing tone. Laura Polverelli’s Rodrigo
is also a character not to be taken lightly. In the smaller
parts Carlo Cigni, sporting a magnificent basso cantante,
is surely predestined for a grand career. The chorus have a
lot to do, especially the male soldiery. They are vivid and
powerful but not always the most homogenous of ensembles. The
orchestra play well and Paolo Arrivabeni is obviously deeply
inspired by this long neglected score.
it a forgotten masterpiece? Maybe not but it is far better than
some works regularly performed and should not be returned to
the archives for the eternal sleep. If it is, the Teatro La
Fenice forces have seen to it that it will not be totally forgotten
and opera lovers with a taste for the unusual should hasten
to acquire this set. Technically this set is fully worthy of
the occasion. There is a good booklet and subtitles are available
in seven languages.
work that is far better than its reputation, in an attractive
production with splendid singing and acting. Should be snapped
up by all opera lovers with a feeling for the unusual.