BWW Review: PIA DE' TOLOMEI, Hackney Empire, March 10 2016
With music by Gaetano Donizetti and a libretto, with its roots in Dante, by Salvadore Cammadano and a setting in the 12th century war between supporters of the Pope and the Holy Roman Emperor, it would be hard to think of anything that appears to be more Italian than, er... English Touring Opera's Pia de' Tolomei (on tour though Spring). And so it proves.
The eponymous Pia may have been born on one side of the conflict, but she is married into the other. If that wasn't tricky enough to navigate, she is pursued by Ghino, who, realising that she will rebuff his advances, sets a trap for her. Though Pia is innocent, her husband, Nello, fooled by Ghino's plot and unfortunate circumstances, imprisons her. Soon she must choose between death and honour and, in a climax that has many echoes of Romeo and Juliet, decide on how to use her position between the factions to bring some reconciliation to hearts and minds rent asunder.
Pia is played - or, perhaps, inhabited - by Elena Xanthoudakis (pictured), whose relatively minor role in the first half leads to an extraordinarily passionate second half performance that is draining to watch, never mind to play. Her duet in the aria Per sempre dai viventi (with Luciano Botelho's sensitively played Ghino) is both a glorious conspiring of music and voice to create something beautiful, but also a sophisticated and heartfelt plea for rational thought to triumph over inflamed anger. Pia is presented as a woman possessed of an emotional intelligence far beyond those with whom she must reason - making her tragedy all the greater.
If Xanthoudakis is utterly compelling, she gets good support, especially from Grant Doyle as the alpha male Nello, a man who doesn't know what he has until it's too late, and Catherine Carby in a trouser role as Pia's brother, Rodrigo, the unwitting author of her downfall. John Andrews' orchestra are also in fine form, playing a score that, surprisingly, has never been heard before in England in a fully staged production.
For those with an interest, Pia de' Tolomei occupies an important place in the history of Italian opera and also in the vast catalogue of Donizetti's work - there's plenty on that stuff in the excellent programme. But to treat this work, indeed any opera, as a subject to be studied rather than a delight to be enjoyed, is to skirt too closely to locking this art form away in books and with audiences who have made their bones with 50 visits to the Royal Opera House and 500 hours streaming arias on Spotify. That would do a disservice to a work that captivates with its aesthetic pleasures, its thoroughgoing humanity and its technical skill. And it's coming to a stage somewhere near you soon.