Pia de’ Tolomei

Donizetti
Pia de’ Tolomei

Pia – Majella Cullagh
Rodrigo – Manuela Custer
Ghino – Bruce Ford
Nello – Roberto Servile
Bice – Patrizia Biccirè
Lamberto – Marco Vinco
Piero – Mirco Palazzi
Ubaldo – Mark White
Prison Guard – Christopher Turner

Geoffrey Mitchell Choir

London Philharmonic Orchestra
David Parry


Reviewed by: John T. Hughes

Reviewed: 23 October, 2004
Venue: Royal Festival Hall, London

Said Opera Rara’s driving force Patric Schmid of the forthcoming recording of “Pia de’ Tolomei”, made in Henry Wood Hall the week before this concert performance: “This is it. There is no more of Pia de’ Tolomei.” In other words, the three endings for Act One and various alterations introduced after the premiere in Venice in 1837 will be included in the recording, most by way of appendices.

In Venice, the Act One finale was not successful. The opera was revised and presented five months later in Senigallia, where the new finale was well received, though the slow section had been adapted from “Ugo, Conte di Parigi”. For performances in Naples in 1838, Donizetti made further revisions, including a replacement for the borrowed music of that finale. In addition, the unhappy ending, Pia’s death, was replaced by one in which she was united with Nello, her husband. For the RFH concert, the Venetian version was performed but with the Senigallia Act One finale; and of course the appendices were not given.

It is a complicated tale of divided loyalties, unrequited love, mistaken motives, envy, lack of trust and a few more misunderstandings. By the time Nello discovers Pia’s innocence she is dying from poison, though she does manage to reconcile him and her brother Rodrigo.

To list all the pieces that I found enjoyable would consume much time and space. One, though, was the Bellini-like duet “Fra questa braccia”, in which Donizetti set soprano and mezzo initially against pizzicato strings, varied by retaining pizzicato for violas and cellos while violins and double basses play arco, before the cellos join them to leave the violas being plucked while a solo flute and clarinet and two horns momentarily join in.

After a week’s recording, the LPO was in fine form under David Parry’s baton. Parry has been involved in so many of Opera Rara’s ventures that he has a CV full of resurrected delights, and his contribution deserves the gratitude of lovers of bel canto.

Another who has become almost joined at the hip with Opera Rara is Bruce Ford, whose role here is of the villainous, vengeful Ghino. The part suits Ford’s voice well, for he has the strong lower range which many bel canto tenors lack, while retaining an ability to deal with higher-lying passages. He is always a singer who introduces shading into his voice and he captured well Ghino’s remorse on seeing the outcome of his action. Some nice little touches were provided by Roberto Servile, even though the voice is not the most ‘plush’: he phrased well in his aria and in the ensemble, and he and Ford sang strongly in the duet “Parea celeste spirito”, in which Ghino convinces Nello of Pia’s supposed infidelity.

Rodrigo is a breeches-role, a man played by a woman. Manuela Custer was in top form, blending smoothly with Majella Cullagh in duet, moving with vocal dexterity through her solos and seasoning her tone with some tang. The upper voice rang out, but lower notes were not skimped.

The smaller roles included two for bass and one for soprano, the last being the bright-toned Patrizia Biccirè, possessor of an agile voice which did not have the opportunity for display. She deserves to be heard in a larger assignment. Marco Vinco, as Pia’s retainer Lamberto, also with little to do, sang firmly with sufficient bite in his tone. At only 27 he seems destined for a good future. His height should serve him well on the operatic stage. He is one to watch, as is Mirco Palazzi, a year younger, who has a warm, well focussed timbre, easy of production. He has already been heard in London, in a recital in the Rosenblatt Series at St John’s, Smith Square. He had just enough to sing as the hermit Piero to show that his is a voice of quality.

Foremost, though, is the role of Pia, in which Majella Cullagh was in her element. She has a very good top and the vocal flexibility for florid passages, of which there were many. She rippled through the scalework, tone gleaming, yet injected a tinge of sadness, of resignation, into her death-scene, most effectively done. Pia is a splendid part, which was splendidly performed.

David Parry interrupted the well-earned applause at the end to announce that as a bonus, delightfully unexpected, we would hear the happy conclusion written for Naples. It was given with blithely sung roulades by the Irish soprano, who seemed to be enjoying the occasion as much as the audience was. It was another feather in Majella Cullagh’s cap, and her colleagues proved able partners.

We shall have to wait until September for the CDs to be issued, so stay awhile, for this concert was an enjoyable pointer to what they will offer.



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