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
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
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
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.