English Touring Opera has a fine record of bringing little known Donizetti operas on tour and providing inventive productions with promising young singers. Even by their high standards, this performance of Pia de’Tolomei was little short of miraculous. Originally intended as a concert performance, a small donation from loyal supporters enabled them to perform it using the back of the Don Giovanni set used the night before. This brilliant creative inspiration worked really well and enabled the singers to give us a full-on bel canto performance in a proper performing space.
Pia de’Tolomei was first performed in 1837 in Venice but, as was the rule in the early nineteenth century, Donizetti revised it to meet the requirements of other opera houses in the following years. The version used by ETO combines parts from three revisions. It’s a typically melodramatic plot that incorporates elements of Romeo and Juliet and of Othello, but the absurdities of the story are eclipsed by the music which is ‘bel canto’ at its absolute best. Pia is from a Guelph family but has been married off – in a failed effort to broker a peace – to Nello, a warlord of the Ghibelline clans. Pia’s brother Roderigo has led his Guelph forces in an insurrection that breaks the truce, but he has been defeated and imprisoned. The dramatic core of the opera is about the divided loyalties of Pia who loves her fierce husband but cannot bear to see her bloodthirsty brother executed. The catalyst for the tragedy is Nello’s cousin Ghino who, Iago-like, sows false suspicions in the mind of Nello about Pia’s faithfulness.
ETO’s director James Conway has said that only with expert bel canto singers is it worth doing Donizetti. He has found an extraordinarily talented group here. Pride of place has to go to Elena Xanthoudakis, the young Greek Australian soprano singing Pia, for whose performance I will run out of superlatives. Totally secure in the technically demanding music, producing ornamentation of exquisite beauty, and still bringing an emotional intensity to the role, especially in the final scene where she tries to reconcile her husband and her brother, this young singer is quite superb. And she gets great support from Grant Doyle as a forceful and tormented Nello with a powerful but flexible baritone voice. Roderigo, a “trouser role”, is well sung by Catherine Carby, a fine mezzo soprano with real dramatic flair, but whose voice did show signs of strain near the end of the opera. The thankless tenor role of Ghino, who has to move from vicious troublemaker to heartbroken penitent, was well sung and superbly acted by Luciano Botelho.
Given the demands of touring three operas around the UK, the chorus and orchestra of ETO did a fine job, well managed by the excellent John Andrews, whose musical flair and scholarly approach here combine superbly. I do not count myself as a devoted fan of bel canto opera but this was a very special production with singing of the highest quality that could convert even the most reluctant opera goer. Please see it if you can.