Andrea Cigni’s production of “Pia de’ Tolomei,” a 19th-century opera by Gaetano Donizetti that has its origins in Dante's "Purgatory," comes to the United States after playing limited engagements at three theaters in Italy in late 2017 and early 2018. While the opera in Charleston features a mostly new company of singers, Cigni’s production includes the original set.
“We try to evoke something,” Cigni said. “We would like to suggest something. I think the theater has a responsibility to give some information, and the audience has the other responsibility to take this information and create a message.”
The opera presents a melding of a love story and a history of conflict, but the plot is not a complicated one. Pia de’ Tolomei loves her husband, Nello. Ghino, Nello’s cousin, also loves Pia, but Pia is not interested in him. Ghino’s jealousy drives him to convince Nello that Pia has been unfaithful.
The story dates to the 13th century, during a time where the papacy (supported by the Guelphs) and the Holy Roman Empire (supported by the Ghibellines) struggled for power. To make the history in this production more understandable for audiences, Cigni chose to set the opera in pre-World War II Tuscany. His decision was based on the different ways women have been treated in society.
“In the medieval society, the woman in the society was not so important, she had to stay at home," Cigni said. "In the meantime, in the fascist period (of the 20th century), the importance of men in that period was very high.”
Because of this, Cigni makes Pia one of the people who, during the war, recover and hide art from Nazis intent on destroying it.
“She would like to preserve the art, preserve the culture, preserve a memory of the people against an imminent war,” Cigni said. “I would like to analyze the figure of a woman inserted in a society where politics, honor and power are the most important things. She tries to come out from this situation.”
On stage, Cigni and set designer Dario Gessati have given the audience a physical indication of how Pia interacts with the world. In the middle of the stage is a cube, a space just for Pia. Inside, Cigni said, Pia is safe and protected.
Pia’s secrets are only discussed inside this house. People outside may try to spy on what happens inside but, Cigni said, they listen without completely understanding. In the second act, which sees Pia in exile, the cube is lifted, removing her security.
Gessati, who has worked at Spoleto Festival USA’s former sister festival, the Festival of Two Worlds in Italy, drew his inspiration from rationalist architects of the 1920s and 1930s. This movement, inspired by logically and mathematically ordered design, has resulted in a set for “Pia de’ Tolomei” that contains simple geometrical lines. One particular influence Gessati points out is the Palazzo della Civilta Italiana, also known as the Colosseo Quadrato.
“I wanted the core of the story held in a plastic model, a geometric and monolithic volume that could limit the action (on stage), but not the thoughts,” he said.
In designing this set, Gessati worked to stay true to the vision he and Cigni shared while knowing that this opera would travel to different venues.
“When I plan, I immediately think that the idea and the atmosphere must remain as correct and unchanged as possible despite the different architecture,” Gessati said.
Cigni will work with his new cast to evoke love as well as the pain of conflict.
“At the very end, this cube comes down on stage,” Cigni said. “It comes back. And all the paintings are around this cube, representing the world of Pia. In front of love, in front of death, in front of the sensitivity of this woman, she asked for a moment to stop with this stupid war.”