Sottile Theatre, Charleston
June 8, 2018

You think Lucia di Lammermoor has a hard time? Try poor old Pia de’ Tolomei. Not only does her hubby confine her in a tower expecting her to starve to death, but in the end an evil henchman slips the thirsty dame a Mickey Finn only for her to gasp her poisoned last in the arms of her suddenly repentant spouse. As a medieval history lesson, it’s real “vessel with the pestle” stuff, but it’s certainly tuneful and a smart rethink or dramatic updating is all it needs to thrive. If Andrea Cigni’s intermittently ham-fisted production doesn’t really give Donizetti his due, thanks to Lidiya Yankovskaya’s fine reading of the score and some standout vocal performances Spoleto Festival’s US premiere of a first rate, second rate bit of bel canto is well worth a look.

Amanda Woodbury and Valdis Jansons in Pia de’ Tolomei. Photo © William Struhs

Donizetti’s tragedia lirica to a libretto by the ever workmanlike Salvadore Cammarano premiered in 1837 at the Teatro Apollo in Venice. It was the composer’s 60th-or-so opera, coming two years after Lucia and six months before Roberto Devereux. Taking its cue from Canto V of Dante’s Purgatorio – “remember me, the one who is Pia; Siena made me, Maremma undid me” – it tells of a medieval noblewoman whose husband, Nello, believes her unfaithful when fed a false narrative by his cousin Ghino (a bad man who has secret designs on Pia himself). In fact, she was meeting with her proscribed brother Rodrigo, a fighter on the opposite side (we’re talking Guelphs and Ghibelline’s here), but by the time Nello learns the truth from a remorseful, dying Ghino it’s too late. The unfortunate Pia expires in two sets of arms even as she urges reconciliation between husband and brother.

Italian director Andrea Cigni proves smart enough to go for a more contemporary setting somewhere around the Second World War. Nello becomes a black-shirted fascist, Rodrigo and co are Italian resistance fighters. In Dario Gessati’s design, an awkwardly wide stage is littered with what looks like stolen loot, including Eliseo Sala’s 1846 painting of a hyper-melancholy Pia de’ Tolomei, an token that the dastardly Ghino finds plenty of opportunities to fondle in lieu of the real thing. The director’s note tells us that the saintly Pia is trying to save this art collection for posterity, but that is not at all clear from the staging. In the centre is a movable, vertically placed concrete square in which Pia is frequently ‘confined’ and which presumably signifies her ‘imprisonment’, not just in the tower of Act II, but more generally as a result of oppressive societal convention. Or perhaps if just signifies that she’s being ‘framed’ – it’s possible…?

Pia de’ Tolomei. Photo © William Struhs

Tommaso Lagattolla has clearly researched the period, though the hats – especially those favoured by the Italian military – frequently raise a smile, but Fiammetta Baldiserri’s flat lighting is hampered by a very small grid and not much visually to throw it at. Projections on a busy front stage scrim makes for a highly effective storm scene, but at other times feel over fussy. The biggest problem here is the blocking. Cigni gives his actors little to work with by way of stage furniture or props, leaving them to prowl in lengthy intros with little sense of purpose. His chorus tend to fidget and mime chit-chat in a way that easily becomes a distraction.

lllogicalities abound: A mens’ chorus about hiding in the dark sees them illuminating their faces with torches, and why is everyone dressed in day wear when an intruder is detected in the middle of the night? Bel canto opera is the very devil to ‘act’ through in any modern sense, requiring thought about what a singer does with his or her arms or feet. Cigni’s staging involves a lot of water treading and stock gestures.

Cassandra Zoe Velasco (centre) in Pia de’ Tolomei. Photo © William Struhs

It’s not all doom and gloom. The basic premise holds water and several of the singers certainly can act and do their best with what they have been given. But the virtues of this production are more musical than dramatic. Amanda Woodbury – a fine Juliette at the Met last year – makes an excellent lead, her essentially lyric soprano possessing just enough spinto to pay dividends when under duress – which for poor old Pia is rather often. Cavatinas like her opening prayer (O tu che desti il fulmine) or her lovely Act II duet with Ghino (Per sempre dai viventi) show off a flexible instrument with a natural instinct for the phrasing the long line. Cabalettas, too, are neatly dispatched, and she rises to the final drawn-out death scene with nobility and some ravishing top notes.

She’s well matched by Mexican mezzo Cassandra Zoe Velasco as her brother – a late example of the trouser role for Donizetti. Velasco’s Rodrigo may appear more boy than man, but she has a powerful, compelling voice, firm and creamy, and evenly produced across a wide range. Her cabalettas, especially the final thrilling L’astro che regge i miei destini, show off an enviable coloratura. Both she and Woodbury are products of LA Opera’s young artists program and their brief moments in duet are highlights here. Soprano Vera Savage as Bice may not have a lot to do but makes her mark singing with commitment and a thrilling power.

Amanda Woodbury and Vera Savage in Pia de’ Tolomei. Photo © William Struhs

The men are sometimes less successful. Isaac Frishman as Ghino sings with elegance and attention to text, but his voice is a little undernourished, especially at the top, and he gets lost in the mix when singing from the back of the stage. As Nello, Pia’s husband, Latvian baritone Valdis Jansons displays a fine, focused voice with a nicely snarly edge when required (i.e. most of the time). He’s a touch light at the bottom, but is always in the moment (though it’s hard to feel much for Nello – a man who can brick up his wife to starve to death and then say “hey, but it’s worse for me”). Making him a fascist has pretty much doomed him in the sympathy stakes from the start, which is a shame because in the final scene we are clearly meant to feel for all three characters.

The smaller roles are decently taken. Nathan Granner makes a fine villainous Ubaldo – the real snake in the grass here, but a character sadly in search of an aria. Matthew Anchel is inclined to bellow as Pia’s servant Lamberto, but veteran American bass Kevin J. Langan puts in a star turn as a random hermit (here an ancient, decorated soldier). His prayer after the storm, Divo spirto, il cui sguardo penetra, is a highlight of the score and reveals a stylish, rich and resonant voice with a real grasp of Italian.

Amanda Woodbury and Isaac Frishman in Pia de’ Tolomei. Photo © William Struhs

In the pit, conductor Lidiya Yankovskaya does a terrific job with the Spoleto Festival USA Orchestra. She’s brings a fiery spirit to a score than could easily feel routine and has a sure instinct for pacing, while always finding room to bring out Donizetti’s melodic orchestrational felicities. The Westminster Choir sing with focus and intention, ensuring that two of Donizetti’s more inspired choruses – the opening scene for Pia and her maids and the patriotic Act II soldiers chorus – emerge as musical standouts.

Pia was a flop at its premiere, leading Donizetti to fiddle about with it for a second staging, even changing the end so that Pia lives! Two commercial recordings, the Opera Rara studio recording especially recommendable, show how effective – if occasionally conventional – the score is, but the chance to see it staged is a welcome pleasure for which Spoleto Festival deserve full credit.

The 2019 Spoleto Festival will run from May 24 – June 9. Programming will be announced in January 2019

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