Pia Unpacked

Monday 4 January 2016

John Andrews, conductor of Pia de’ Tolomei, picks his favourite extracts from Donizetti’s rarely performed opera.

Mi volesti sventurato (Ghino cabaletta)

Bel canto singing at its best brought phenomenal energy in to the opera houses of Italy and Europe. The sheer swagger, arrogance and vocal brilliance of Ghino’s music as he plans the downfall of his one-time idol perfectly illustrates the man we see on stage. Driving rhythmic support from the orchestra accompanies a mellifluous, florid, and dramatically-charged vocal line, setting the stage for the tragedy that will unfold.

O tu che desti il fulmine (Pia’s cavatina)

Donizetti’s wonderful economy in this opera is nowhere better illustrated than in the speed with which he paints the heroine in music. Noble, assured and self-controlled whilst at the same time suffering enormous pain and conflict as she finds her husband and family at war with one another. Far from being empty vocal display, the brilliant coloratura bursts out in paroxysms of emotion as Pia struggles to hold her world together.

Fra queste braccia (Pia/Rodrigo duet in Act I finale)

In the midst of the chaos of the Act I finale, Pia’s reunion with her fugitive brother is a moment of moving intensity. With a delicate accompaniment of pizzicato strings, Donizetti seems to make time stand still as brother and sister hold each other tightly at what will prove to be their last meeting.

Ghino /Pia duet (ideally missing out the introductory minute or so with Ubaldo)

Above all in these moments of direct emotional conflict, we hear in Donizetti the direct link taking Italian Opera from the classical and balanced forms of Rossini towards the taut and dramatic language of Verdi (whose first operas were only two years away). The foretaste of scenes like Violetta and Germont’s duet in Act II of La Traviata is nowhere clearer than in this exchange between Pia and Ghino, with the range of emotions swinging from desperation, through anger, exhaustion and resignation to their mutual resolution to accept their fates.

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