The irresistibly tragic tale of Pia de Tolomei has provided inspiration for an opera by Donizetti, a painting by Dante Gabriele Rossetti, and mention by various poets, including Ezra Pound, T.S.Eliot and, most famously, Dante, who in the fifth canto of the Purgatory has her say the following: "Do thou remember me who am the Pia/ Siena made me, unmade me Maremma/ He knoweth it, who had encircled first/ espousing me, my finger with his gem." The story remains mysterious; Pia was supposedly a member of the wealthy Tolomei dynasty of bankers and merchants, who in fanciful moments claimed descent from the very Ptolemies of Egypt. She was married to Nello dei Pannocchieschi, from another powerful Sienese family. Driven by insane jealousy, or because he was carrying on an affair with a certain Margherita Aldobrandeschi, he cruelly mistreated Pia, shutting her up in a remote castle in the Maremma. She died either from her general suffering or because she was thrown out of a window.

The tragedy also caught the eye of the young Marguerite Yourcenar, who wrote a short theatrical piece on the subject some time between 1929 and 1932 under the title of Le dialogue dans le marcage (The Dialogue in the marsh). The composer Azio Corghi has drawn a libretto from this work and set it to music. The husband, racked by remorse for what he has done, is now a beggar wandering through the marsh; Pia is represented as a sort of evanescent being we never quite understand whether she is mad or even whether she is in fact alive or a phantom. The whole of this short piece (some 40 minutes) consists of instrumental introduction and finale, with a series of seven madrigals as a background to the spoken, chanted and sung performances of the two protagonists. The production, by Valter Malosti, uses an indeterminate mediaeval setting, with a sort of country festa as backdrop.

Chiara Muti, daughter of the celebrated conductor, Riccardo Muti, gives an inspired rendering of Pia, exploiting an enormous range of virtuoso talent in acting, recitation, chant and song, with an arresting line in manic laughter, veering from the touching to the fey to the scornful. Gianpiero Bianchi also brings the greatest expertise to the role of Sire Lorenzo, powerfully conveying the anguish and dark remorse of the character. The Swingle Singers, as the madrigal choir, are highly professional, and the conductor, Vittorio Parisi, brings the whimsical score, rich with interesting percussion effects, very much to life.

It is to the credit of the Teatro dellOpera di Roma that it puts on an untried work of this sort, and it is an enterprise to be encouraged.

Teatro dellOpera di Roma at the Teatro Nazionale, Via del Viminale 51, Rome, tel. 06481601, www.opera.roma.it, 24 May 2005. Further performances 26, 28, 29 May 2005.

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