Gaetano Donizetti: Pia de Tolomei (1837)

Opera in two acts. Running Time: 2 hours 16 minutes.

This is another of my jumbo reviews on a social justice theme, and is dedicated to victims of domestic abuse.


Painting by Carlo Arienti, circa 1843-54. 

If operas were categorized like fairy tales, this would fall into the T257.7 Unjustly jealous husband forces wife to commit adultery category with the likes of Francesca da Rimini and Parisina. All three were real life Italian women who ended up in Dante because they got murdered for adultery, but unlike the other two, Pia was actually, well, innocent of the accusations against her. At least this is how Dante tells it as he places her in purgatory in his Divine Comedy where she pleads with him to pray for her soul as she knows no one in her family is so doing.

The opera was composed for La Fenice in 1837 and was mostly a success at its premiere, except for the first act finale. This was revised by Donizetti and this new act finale was presented later the same year. I have reviewed both here as they are not just musically different, the text of the libretto is not the same either and different characters pop in at completely different points (although both are about the same length at around 19-20 minutes).

The performance history is short: it flopped at Naples in 1838 (the management had ordered Donizetti to change the ending so Pia did not die), but was successful in Milan and Florence the following year. In the 1840s it was performed in Barcelona and Lisbon, and in the 1850s at Malta before disappearing only to be revived in Siena in 1967 and has since had sporadic stagings in Italy, the UK, and an American premiere in May 2018. Is this neglect undeserved?

The body of the review is of the 2004 Opera Rara release with Bruce Ford as Ghino with the alternate act one finale taken from the 2005 Dynamic release with Patrizia Ciofi in the title role which is available on Amazon Prime Music. The Dynamic release is about ten minutes shorter than the Opera Rara, just FYI.

Pia inspired several Italian (and Anglo-Italian) artists in the 19th century and a few paintings are included here for your edification.

SETTING: Siena, 1260. More Guelphs and Ghibellines here. Pia (soprano) is the wife of super Ghibelline Nello (baritone) but is stalked by his cousin Ghino (tenor). Ubaldo (tenor), servant of Nello, presents Ghino with a letter about a secret meeting between Pia and an unnamed man. Ghino gives this letter to Nello and all three men assume that Pia is carrying on an adulterous affair. They discover her in an underground passage near the castle dungeons but they do not realize that the man Pia is helping is not her lover but her brother Rodrigo (contralto), a Guelph held prisoner by Nello. Pia is imprisoned and interrogated by Ghino, who realizes she is innocent and tries to tell Nello, but reconciliation comes too late.

LINK: The video is at the end of the post.


ACT 1: (71 minutes)

Scene 1: A room in the de Tolomei castle.

1: Ancor del fosco notturno velo The brief and excited prelude moves quickly to something more like a walk in the park as the male chorus come on ** and the arrival of the servant Ubaldo in a very energetic number. This is followed by a start-stop recitative of otherwise immense lyrical beauty between Ubaldo and Ghino (lots of scattered melodies here).

7: Non può dirti la parola A beautiful cavatina for Ghino *** in which he has adulterous thoughts about Pia (the wife of his cousin). He is interrupted by the arrival of Bice, the maid of Pia, and goes into a cabaletta with Ubaldo making interjections. Notice anything… familiar? Quotations of this number were used by Verdi for Amami, Alfredo in the second act of La Traviata. (There may be an historical reason for this: Giuseppina Strepponi, later Madama Verdi, sang the role in May of 1838. Coincidence?)

Scene 2: A room the chambers of Pia.

19: O tu che desti il fulmine The scene starts with that overused jumpy chorus tune from AlinaSancia, and La Favorite. After a dialogue between Pia and Bice, the first thing of any note is a  cavatina for Pia * which feels like it comes from a long-lost early Verdi opera and doesn’t sound anything like what Donizetti typically wrote. Although requiring immense vocal agility, the orchestral accompaniment is extremely mild to say the least. The servant Lamberto arrives and there is a bizarre cacophony of sound before Pia goes into her cabaletta.

Scene 3: Another room in the castle.

28: Giurai svenarlo, ch’egli ardì col sangue Things get better when the scene shifts and we get a powerful orchestral intermezzo **. We are introduced to Nello in an equally strong recitative.

32, 38: È men fero, meno orrendo A duet ahead of its time *** as Ghino informs Nello of the alleged adultery of Pia via a letter found by Ubaldo. As the scene progresses the music becomes increasingly more agitated and violent before heading into a galloping cabaletta ***. This entire number, again, feels more like a Verdi piece than Donizetti, actually it hardly resembles anything by Donizetti.

Scene 4: A subterranean tunnel under the castle near the dungeon.

40: Yet another very strong intermezzo ** before we come upon the prisoner Rodrigo in a mostly unaccompanied recitative.

44, 49: Mille volte sul campo d’onore A cavatina for Rodrigo ** starting with all the freshness of Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony before moving into something near to a waltz but not quite. Really lovely, only interrupted by the arrival of the tenor warden who brings him water, followed by a very exciting cabaletta of hope ***.

Scene 5: Same as Scene 2, in the apartments of Pia.

52: Dell’inatteso tuo venir la nuova There are two different versions of this scene: apparently the first go was so much of a disaster (it was the only number that was not warmly received during the premiere, and was apparently booed) that Donizetti rewrote the entire number. This appears to be that original finale *. It starts off amusingly enough with Bice preparing her mistress for bed. Ghino and Nello come on planning to spy on Pia who seems to be excited about meeting with someone very soon. There is a mild confrontation.

58, 63: Ogni sguardo, ed ogni accento/Pia… A trio **, slow moving at first, the best music going to Nello, Pia being oddly sedate apart from some arpeggios. The two men leave (read hide without Pia realizing, this is the part that doesn’t make any sense and possibly why the number was restructured?). Lamberto comes on (weird orchestra crash, near deafening) as he tells her that the man she is waiting for is arriving. Brother and sister are reunited one last time and Pia repeats her descant from the trio **.

69: Son ebbro di sdegno Nello and Ghino break in, bringing guards with them to arrest whoever is with Pia. Rodrigo ironically escapes so Pia herself is arrested in what is probably one of the most bizarre finales in all opera *. You have to hear it to believe it.


55: Inoltriam fra l’ombre avvolti Ubaldo comes on with the male chorus ** and they lay in wait to spy on Pia. She arrives, excited by the night silence before Lamberto arrives and tells her Rodrigo is coming.

58: Fra queste braccia A lovely little duet for brother and sister **, not really all that different from the other version. They are interrupted by the arrival of Nello and Ghino, Rodrigo flees through a secret passage and Nello has the armed guards invade her bedroom. Pia refuses to tell anyone the identity of her visitor.

63: Ahimè, quell’anelito A delicate but beautiful ensemble *** for Ghino, Nello, and the women (Pia, Bice, ladies-in-waiting).

67: L’empia cingete d’aspre ritorte The closing ensemble *.


Painting by Stefano Ussi, circa 1867. 

ACT 2: (65 minutes)

Scene 1: A military encampment near Siena.

0: Cinto di rosse nubi The most picturesque military morale chorus ever ***, a magnificent and rather bizarrely awesome way for Donizetti to begin an act. Afterward, we discover that Lamberto and Rodrigo are conspiring to lay siege of the city and rescue Pia.

4: Ahi! Sì barbara minaccia Another brilliant contralto cavatina *** as he rouses the troops.

Scene 2: A room in the castle at Maremme where Pia has been taken.

12: Tu Ghino alle maremme! Ubaldo is ordered by Ghino to bring in Pia from the dungeons **.

14: Morte o colpa?  The climactic duet Pia-Ghino ***. He offers to free her in exchange for her giving into his sexual demands. She refuses, and also admits to him that the man they found in her bedroom is her brother Rodrigo, the leader of the Guelphs, which is why she did not initially betray his identity in order to give him time to escape. You start off thinking Pia is doing well (for once), but Donizetti then assassinates her by giving Ghino one of the most beautiful tenor lines ever. Pia tries to up her game, but Ghino is quick to take up the same tune so she ends up in a descant. Ghino gears up the scene (and tempo) and he realizes how much of a jerk (and predatory) he is. He promises to help her.

25: Divamperà tremenda oggi The scene ends rather horrifyingly with Ubaldo amusingly reading a letter from Nello * instructing him to poison Pia if he dies in the battle that is about to take place with the forces of Rodrigo.

Scene 3: A hermitage.

27: Il mugghiar di sì fera procella A storm and chorus of monks *** while the battle ensues. Nello arrives seeking shelter after the battle and the Prior begs him to take Pia back because he is sure she is innocent. Nello is very stubborn.

35: Lei perduta, in coro ascondo Nello is very stubborn, expressing his opinion on his wife in an oddly sunny aria **. Meanwhile, Ghino arrives having just been mortally wounded in a Guelph ambush.

37: O Nello…mi tragge Ghino reveals all and dies in an incredibly beautiful scene ***. He tells Nello that Pia is innocent, the man was her brother Rodrigo. He even admits that he did everything against Pia out of jealousy because he wanted her for himself. He asks Nello to give him, but he does not before the man dies.

41: Dio pietoso The cabaletta for Nello is a combination of excitement and slight disregard for all the death that is taking place all around ***.

Scene 4:

44: Another long (the longest) intermezzo **

47: A questo nappo beverà fra poco Uberto has already prepared a poison for Pia and orders her to drink it *.

52: Sposo, ah! tronca ogni dimora Pia has a nightmare ** in which she thinks Rodrigo has killed Nello. This is incredibly sad.

59: Ah! Di Pia…che muore…e geme The play-out leading to the final cavatina con coro * for Pia is action-packed to say the least: Nello arrives to find Pia alive but dying. He punishes Uberto, reveals to Pia that Ghino told him the truth as he died, and Rodrigo arrives storming the castle with his forces. Rodrigo is about to kill Nello for having Pia poisoned when she begs that the two men be reconciled. Musically it is not the most interesting of ends (it requires an actress to pull it off), but the pathetic tragedy is there and the concluding moments are bittersweet to say the least (and watch out for the rather delicious orchestral chromaticism as she goes into her final agony) as our soprano soars to…purgatory? Darn you Dante!


Painting by Eliseo Sala, 1846. 


The problem with Pia is that the title character does not have much to do, and what she does do is rather dull. She only appears in four of the nine musical numbers (two being act finales), which is a little odd considering that she was created by the same soprano who sang the first Lucia Ashton. This is problematic because all of our sympathies are with her since she is a wronged and senselessly abused wife who is cruelly murdered for absolutely no rational reason even by the standards of opera logic. Instead of being a great tragic heroine like Lucia, she comes off more pathetically sad, and this is very unsettling because one feels she deserves more. In contrast to the title character, the opera overall is rather brilliant, with a strong and striking proto-Verdian quality which had me second guessing if this was Donizetti and not in fact some long lost extremely earlier Verdi score that somehow got resurrected from the grave. Rodrigo is possibly the best dramatic contralto role written by Donizetti with two massive arias with excellent cabalettas. Nello is an excellent baritone part, and Ubaldo is an okay villain (although his motivation is a little obscure). The orchestral intermezzi are all handled with a professional skill that is very different from what one is accustomed to in Donizetti, and even the choruses, generally the weakest element for Donizetti, are almost all great (except that female chorus that gets recycled too much in act 1 scene 2). The best music belongs to Ghino, who, in spite of the fact that he is a little perverted, has some of the most lovely tenor music to sing. This gives the overall impression that the opera is actually about what he and Nello think about Pia, the title character being more of a reactive symbol for women who are victimized by the very people who are supposed to love them than a concrete personality, because she has almost no opportunity to demonstrate that she actually has a distinctive personality. This brings me back to Dante, in which Pia is primarily concerned with frustration against her husband, the man who had vowed to protect her, who then murdered her without any justification or even provocation. Attempting to reconcile the beauty of almost all of the music with the extremity of psychotic cruelty inflicted on the title character is just so painfully difficult.

The only way that it is easy to tell that this is Donizetti is because of the short breathed melodies, which is a little ironic seeing that Verdi quoted this opera heavily in La Traviata. So what we have is almost an operatic jewel, marred only by the presence of a prima donna upon whom Verdi really should have bestowed better music. I mean Donizetti, whoops! An alpha, but no plus.


Painting by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 1868-1880. 

LINK: (2004 Opera Rara release)

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