Pia de' Tolomei might be the most Spoleto thing of 2018. Think about it. Classical background? It's based on a beloved and revered Italian opera that was, in turn, based on a canto of Dante's Purgatorio — so, check.
Grand socio-political intentions? A new feminist swing was added to this adaptation about a woman who's basically at the mercy of the men around her — check, again.
A unique addition that makes it interesting without chasing away those familiar with the original? The setting of this tragedy was moved from the Guelph-Ghibelline conflict of the Middle Ages to pre-WWII Italy — yeah, we've got ourselves a Spoleto event.
Sarcasm aside, listing the individual elements of this modernized Pia de' Tolomei doesn't exactly do it justice. The original opera tells the twisting tragedy of Pia, a woman who rejects one man's love, only to be punished by her husband in an act of vengeance for an affair that didn't happen. Director Andrea Cigni believes the plot to be broad enough that it isn't married to a specific time frame. "I think Pia, with her history, could be a universal love history, because the theme described [is timeless]," he says. "It is easy to identify love stories in all times in which a husband, the husband's brother, and the woman conflict to each get something."
The original score for Pia has stayed completely intact for the production, while a handful of changes were required for the scenery. Cigni credits much of the ease of the adaptation to the power of the original Gaetano Donizetti composed opera. "Describing this universal dramatic theme was easy to adapt to the concept of the libretto to the new period," says Cigni. "The difficulties of working on this kind of opera is to keep the energy of the music with the acting (of the singers, chorus, supers) that is not affected, but sincere and realistic."
Cigni says that the process behind reimagining Pia in this fashion was as easy as following the history behind it. "We wouldn't simply describe a situation, but suggest — giving to the public the responsibility to complete the meaning of the dramaturgy," says Cigni.
Of course, subtlety in set design presents a new challenge for the actors. "The strength and richness of music fill this space made of geometric lines and voids," says Cigni, referring again to the stage. "Therefore, it becomes fundamental for the performers to tell sentiments, sufferings, pains, so that the history will be clear and timeless."
Every minor addition and major change made to this retelling of the opera serves an ambitious purpose. A provocative thought exercise for the modern day (that's bound to piss off internet commenters) can be found in this incarnation of Pia's examination of a divisive political atmosphere and sexism.
Just like the canto that brought the story of Pia into the operatic imagination of Donizetti, Cigni's Pia de' Tolomei portrays a woman trapped in a trial that she didn't volunteer for, one that doesn't provide a guarantee of escape.
Most alterations to the opera, primarily the shiny new setting, were done to highlight its feminist themes. "I have imagined Pia as a very sensitive woman, in love with art, culture, and life, but oppressed by this society where men are the most important part with their struggles for the power and the supremacy, too," says Cigni.
The message behind this incarnation of Pia de' Tolomei, and to a lesser extent the original production, is trans-historical and should be strikingly familiar to the average American familiar with the word "bipartisanship." The world Cigni describes is a patriarchal "society rich in political contrast, where two political parties are opponents." Once you remind yourself that the setting is fascist Italy, it accidently reads like a horror story.