|Elena Xanthoudakis, John-Colyn Gyeantey - Donizetti Pia de'Tolomei - English Touring Opera - photo Jane Hobson|
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Mar 10 2016
Vibrant & dramatically convincing account of rarely performed Donizetti
|Grant Doyle - Donizetti Pia de'Tolomei - photo Jane Hobson|
English Touring Opera's production of Donizetti's Pia de'Tolomei opened on Thursday March 10 2016 at the Hackney Empire. James Conway directed, with John Andrews conducting, designs were by Loren Elstein and lighting by Guy Hoare. The cast included Luciano Botelho as Ghino, John-Colyn Gyeantey as Ubaldo, Grant Doyle as Nello, Elena Xanthoudakis as Pia, and Catherine Carby as Rodrigo.
|Catherine Carby, Elena Xanthoudakis - Donizetti Pia de'Tolomei|
photo Jane Hobson
The operas nine scenes (some relatively short) require half a dozen different settings so James Conway and his designer Loren Elstein opted for a single set which was grim looking and relatively functional (appropriate given the wartime setting). But it provided a remarkably flexible series of playing spaces, along with a coup de theatre when Pia's tower (where she is incarcerated) opened up to reveal the phrase from Dante's Purgatorio which inspired the opera in the first place. Costumes were generically historical, with a mixture of pseudo-medieval and 19th century. Colour made a big point, with general dark and grey palate being offset by the green of the Ghibellines and the blue of the Guelphs.
ETO had put together a strong and remarkably balanced cast who provided a strongly idiomatic and technically confident account of the score.
|Luciano Botelho, Elena Xanthoudakis - Donizetti Pia de'Tolomei|
photo Jane Hobson
The role of Ghino requires a tenor of some flexibility and confidence in the high tessitura; the original Ghino also sang Rodrigo in Rossini's La donna del lago and a number of Donizetti's lighter roles. Tenor Luciano Botelho was able to do just that, treating us to a series of acuti in 'voix mixte' which were perfectly in style for the piece. He has quite a light voice, and the role perhaps pushed him to the limit in the more dramatic moments but he remained stylish throughout. Clearly he was having a ball being the villain of the piece, but also his big scene with Xanthoudakis's Pia in Act two (when she persuades him to change his mind and explain to his brother that Pia's 'infidelity' was with her brother) was a powerful and unhackneyed moment.
Third member of the tragic trio is Pia's husband Nello, played by Grant Doyle. The great virtue of the libretto is that he is not made into a cardboard villain, and though he jumps to conclusions in Act One and locks his wife up, in Act Two he is clearly tormented; jealous of her infidelity yet still loving her. Grant Doyle gave a really barnstorming performance, singing the role with a fantastically full, robust yet flexible line. In the Act Two finale he really act the scenery (perhaps almost too much so), but in Act Two we really came to appreciate the conflict in the character, in a beautifully rounded performance.
Pia's brother Rodrigo was intended to be a small role, but the management of Teatro La Fenice in Venice engaged a distinguished mezzo-soprano so Donizetti had to expand the role. In later performances he reduced it again, but with Catherine Carby as Rodrigo ETO wisely opted for a fuller version. So Carby was able to sing Rodrigo's marvellous aria in Act One, a moving moment in prison which moves from despair to hope. Carby makes a fine hero and here she combined it with a lovely fluid sense, yet still sung with great warmth. And Carby, Xanthoudakis and Doyle made the final trio a memorable culmination of the opera.
John-Colyn Gyeantey was wonderfully characterful as Ubaldo, Ghino's servant. This is a role important enough to get solo moments, and Gyeantey took full advantage of the opportunities to show us his confidence in the style and he sings the role of Ghino at two performances later in the run. Craig Smith was dark and sober as Tolomei's retainer, Lamberto making his relatively small contribution count. Piotr Lempa got one terrific scene as a hermit, here stripped to the waist and scourging himself. Susanna Fairburn demonstrated a striking presence, along with firmness of voice and purpose as Pia's servant Bice.
|Elena Xanthoudakis, Luciano Botelho, Grant Doyle, ensemble - Act One finale, Donizetti Pia de'Tolomei - English Touring Opera - photo Jane Hobson|
Under John Andrews the orchestra provided just the right combination of character and support. This was a swift, intense and rather dark account of the score but the swiftness did not preclude flexibility or a suppleness of line.
This is providing to be a strong season for ETO with their intense, stylish and moving account of Gluck's Iphigenie being complemented by this stirring and highly creditable account of Donizetti's opera, sung by a quartet of principals with a lovely sense of Donizettian style.
Update: my thanks to a correspondent (see comments) for pointing out that the story of Pia de'Tolomei actually occurs in Dante's Purgatorio.
Donizetti - Pia de'Tolomei - Majella Cullagh, Bruce Ford, Roberto Servile, Manuela Custer, David Parry, Opera Rara
Donizetti - Pia de'Tolomei (DVD) - Patrizia Ciofi, Dario Schmunk, Christian Gagneron, Paolo Arrivabeni, Teatro La Fenice
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