Adapting a beloved piece of media to a different time period or different style can be a dangerous business. There’s a world of possibilities for creatives who have the patience to experiment with alternate settings, time periods, character motivations, dialogue — the list goes on. But one wrong move or artistic misstep, and you can wind up with that terrible Hamlet adaptation that starred Ethan Hawke.
With those thoughts buzzing through a skeptical mind, I’m pleased to announce that Spoleto’s current presentation of Pia de’ Tolomei side steps those missteps with a beautifully designed adaptation of a classic 19th century opera.
The story and music of the original Gaetano Donizetti composed musical stays almost completely intact. The only obvious difference between the initial Pia de’ Tolomei and the current Andrea Cigni directed Pia de’ Tolomei is the updated setting. Cigni’s remake takes place in fascist Italy before World War II began. Really, all that means for the show is that the characters have guns instead of swords.
The music of Pia is just as elegant and dazzling as it has always been, employing incredibly accomplished singers from America, Latvia, and Mexico to bring the piece to life.
What will surprise people the most is that the aspect of this adaptation that is harped on the most, the setting, is almost a non-factor. It helps bring some feminist themes closer to home, but many of the alterations to the time period would be lifeless without the outstanding set design.
The direction shattered every expectation through the simplistic, modern stage show. Cigni and set designer Dario Gessati provided scenery that spoke more than the performers. Eliseo Sala’s famous portrait of Pia sits in the middle of the stage for a majority of the first act, trapped inside a large hollow cube, symbolizing Pia’s hopeless situation, as she’s trapped between two factions. As the play continues, more of the stage is gradually revealed, until a second level is opened up. The cubes that fill the stage create a strange sense of unease. Everyone’s trapped, everyone’s fate is sealed. The technique is effective beyond words.
Additionally, the production makes good use of projections to simulate storms, rain, even Rodrigo’s imprisonment in his introduction scene.
One of the most apparent nitpicks (and it is a nitpick) is the subtitles that were gratefully put on a screen during the performance. Since the opera is in Italian, and most people probably won’t have google translate open during the show, subtitles are provided at the tip-top of the set. It’s a little frustrating to look up, then down, then up, then down, then up, then… so on, for two and half hours.
The word choice in the translation is so poetic, it’s difficult to not wonder if any liberties were taken with it. “Here upon Earth, nothing remained for us, but an eternity of tears,” Rodrigo and Pia sing when they recount their mother’s death. Honestly, the words on screen are so gorgeous that you don’t care if the diction was switched up at all.
Finding problems with Cigni’s adaptation of Pia de’ Tolomei is kind of like looking for flaws at a five-star restaurant, just because you want to tell your hipster friends that it wasn’t that good. Sure, if you stare long enough, some cracks in the facade will appear, but they’re mostly going to be petty complaints that don’t add up to much at the end of the day. In an academic sense, it’s near perfect. It might get a little too safe at times, but it’s occasionally daring enough to keep the audience hooked until Pia’s pained death knell.
Pia de’ Tolomei, Thurs. May 31 (7:30 p.m.), Sun. Jun. 3 (2 p.m.), Wed. Jun. 6 (7:30 p.m.), Fri. Jun. 8 (7:30 p.m.), $63- $100, Sottile Theatre, 44 George St., (843) 953-6340