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Gioacchino ROSSINI (1792-1868)
La pietra del paragone (1812).
Agata Bienkowska (mezzo) La Marchesa Clarice; Anna Rita Gemmabella (mezzo) La Baronessa Aspasia; Anke Herrmann (soprano) Donna Fulvia; Raffaele Costantini (bass) Il Conte Asdrubale; Alessandro Codeluppi (tenor) Il Cavalier Giocondo; Dariusz Machej (bass) Macrobio; Gioacchino Zarrelli (baritone) Pacuvio; Teru Yoshihara (baritone) Fabrizio;
Czech Chamber Chorus; Czech Chamber Soloists, Brno/Alessandro di Marchi (harpsichord).
Rec. live in Kurhaus Bad Wildbad, Germany during the Rossini in Wildbad Festival on July 21st, 24th and 27th, 2001. DDD
Notes and text included.
NAXOS OPERA CLASSICS 8.660093-95 [3CDs: 161’21: 68’28 + 21’07 + 71’46]

A multitude of thanks are due to Naxos for this, proof positive that there is infinite joy to be gleaned from Rossinian by-roads. Or perhaps I should say, ‘perceived Rossinian byroads’, if ‘by-road’ is read to imply ‘inferior’; taken on its own merits there is nothing wrong with this opera.

La pietra del paragone was Rossini’s first opera for La Scala, Milan - the première occurred on September 26th, 1812, and quite a success it was, too, receiving 53 performances in total. The opera is sheer delight from beginning to end. The nearly three-hour playing time will whizz by if you are Rossini-friendly, I promise. This is due in no small part to the contribution of the Czech Chamber Soloists, Brno, an orchestra that plays with both transparency and infectious buoyancy. Interestingly, the work was rescued from obscurity in Germany, where a series of performances under the title Die Liebesprobe (‘Test of Love’) between 1962 and 1980 brought it to that public’s attention. I wonder if this contains the only ‘Chorus of Gardeners’ in opera? (here they are a bit strained in their upper register, by the way!). Bernd-Rüdiger Kern’s booklet notes for Naxos are exemplary in their plotting of the opera’s trajectory over the years. They are available on the net via Naxos’ site, together with synopsis. The recording, from SWR, the South German Radio, the source of so many Hänssler issues, originates from the 2001 Rossini in Wildbad Festival.

La pietra del paragone immediately precedes the much more famous L’italiana in Algeri. Possibly its plot is part of the problem. Three ladies are in competition for the hand of a Count. Donna Fulvia is explicit in her reasoning - she is after the Count’s money. The Marchesa Clarice actually seems to have feelings for the Count (although Giocondo is, in turn, enamoured with Clarice). Of course, wealth is the Count’s problem; is he loved for his money? His plan is to disguise himself as an African and to test his various suitors (Clarice, Fulvia and a third, the Baroness Aspasia).

More comedy comes in the form of the ‘poet’ Pacuvio, with his nonsense verses and bright and breezy music, and Macrobio’s list of complaints as to the lot of a journalist.

The Count, in disguise, remember, pretends to put forth a paper impounding the Count’s (i.e. his own) goods. Reappearing as himself, he pretends sadness, declaring that this might be seen as a ‘touchstone’; the ‘touchstone’ of the opera’s title. Asking what he can receive from his ‘friends’, the Count receives an offer of Clarice’s hand while Fulvia and the Baroness offer nothing. The final scene of Act I centres on the discovery of a document that, miraculously, solves the Count’s dilemma. Only Clarice and Giocondo are sincere in their relief. The others present pretend.

In Act II the Baroness and Fulvia vow revenge. There is a hunt, complete with storm. Perhaps predictably, one cast member (Giocondo) is assigned the task of commenting on how the storm mirrors the storm in his heart. Rossini’s orchestration here is marvellous (CD3 Track 4), depicting whistling winds and dark woods. Meanwhile Clarice tells Giocondo that one day she will free him. Space for comedy, too, as Pacuvio boasts of killing a tiny bird. It emerges that the bird actually died of fright! A suggested series of duels (Giocondo and the Count, the survivor to fight Macrobio) end in no bloodshed; a ‘Captain Lucindo’ appears bearing a remarkable resemblance to Clarice. He proclaims the victory of Mars and Cupid and declares that he will take Clarice away with him, in effect forcing the Count’s hand. The Count declares his love for Clarice openly. In a final scene, Clarice reveals her identity. The Count is now ready to change his attitude towards women, and the expected general rejoicing follows.

This is not a plot of any great depth although it is possessed of a few neat twists and turns. Yet it is Rossini’s invention that provides constant delight. This applies even in the recitatives, in a recording as alive - and ‘live’ - as this one. Alessandro di Marchi certainly seems aware of the Rossinian zest inherent in the score.

After a fizzing Overture, greeted with well-deserved enthusiastic applause, a busy chorus of praise reveals that the recording on occasion could have done with a bit more body. The following recitative exemplifies the recitative throughout the opera. It is taken at a natural pace, without any sense of rushing. In fact, the pacing throughout is entirely convincing. Try the way di Marchi begins the Act I Finale slowly, aware that there is a fair way to go and giving the impression there is plenty of time. Di Marchi doubles as harpsichordist, and very sensitive he is, too.

Macrobio and Giocondo are the first characters we meet ‘properly’ (i.e. outside recitative), and they set down their defining characteristics. Bass Dariusz Machej is a Macrobio with real presence; Alessandro Codeluppi is a tenor with a marked baritonal aspect. His above-mentioned aria on the trials, pressures and tribulations of being a journalist (tell me about it) is alas not that interesting apart from being the only aria by a journalist I can think of in opera. Quite possibly it worked much better with attendant stage action. Codeluppi’s top register can be thin, though.

The important part of Clarice is taken by Agata Bienkowska. Her Cavatina (No. 3) features a horn obbligato. The unnamed but excellent hornist plays with creamy tone and the tasteful vibrato characteristic of Czech players. Aptly, Bienkowska’s creamy tone matches this well. Bienkowska is remarkably emotive in this solo. The Count, Raffaele Costantini, also sings, here with rather edgy tone, but literally to echo the final words of her phrases! Her own full low register and her expert negotiation thereof can be heard to great effect in her later Duetto with the Count (listed as No. 5 here, track 10). Stage movement means that voices move in and out of focus a little, but Bienkowska’s virtuosity makes this a minor consideration. Throughout the opera she is the high-point. Just listen to the way she starts the Act II Quintet, displaying superb legato and wonderful ornaments (CD 3, track 7, from ‘Spera se vuoi, ma taci’). Another example of her dramatic understanding comes in Act II No. 18 (March, Scene and Aria) where parts of Clarice’s aria are marked in parentheses in the libretto. One really can hear that, just through her vocal inflection. Checking out her CV in the booklet, impressions are confirmed. Her Rossinian credentials are impeccable.

As implied above, the Count (bass Raffaele Constantini), who admittedly has much to live up to, is not of the same standard. Constantini is a pupil of William Matteuzzi. He is not always in tune, and could do with some more reserves of power on occasion. Try his Cavatina, Act I Scene 5, CD1 Track 8, for evidence of this. He can also wobble rather. The strange thing is that towards the very end of the opera he seems to dramatically improve. His eloquence in his declaration of love for Clarice, prior to the fizzing triumph of the very end of the piece is most moving and his even voice production is most impressive.

Pacuvio is Gioacchino Zarrelli, who despatches recitative as to the manner born and whose ‘joke’ aria (Act I Scene 8, CD1 track 11, something about the ‘Missipipì’) is very funny and includes several comic ‘voices’. Ukrainian soprano Anke Herrmann specialises in early music. Her brief aria in Act II reveals a full yet remarkably mobile voice.

The cast work as a whole despite the individual excellences. Obviously they have been carefully chosen. Anna Rita Gemmabella, our Baronessa Aspasia, has much experience in comic operas of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, for example. The presence of an audience obviously adds the requisite frisson. In fact, there is only the occasional moment when being live is a negative point, most obviously perhaps the silences in Act II (CD 3 track 12). Here one can hear stage movement where the silences would, of course, have been filled visually. But this is such a minor quibble in the face of so much fun, it tends towards the meaningless. The enterprise even claims musicological integrity, for it uses a new edition gleaned from contemporary manuscripts by Dimitri Prohkorenko. Do give this a try.

Colin Clarke

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