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Gioachino ROSSINI (1792-1868)
La pietra del paragone. Melodrama giocoso in Two Acts (1812)
La Marchessa Clarice, Marie-Ange Todorovich (contralto); Il Conte Asdrubale, Marco Vinco (bass); Baronessa Aspasia, Laura Brioli (mezzo); Donna Fulvia, Particia Biccire (sop); Il Cavalier Giocondo, friend of the Count - Raúl Gimenez (ten); Macrobi, a journalist - Pietro Spagnoli (bass-baritone); Pacuvio, a poet Ė Poalo Bordogna (bar)
Chorus and Orchestra of the Teatro Real, Madrid/Alberto Zedda
Stage Direction, sets and costumes by Pier Luigi Pizzi. Original production for The Rossini Festival, Pesaro and performed in the Critical Edition by Patricia Brauner and Anders Wiklund for the Rossini Foundation, Pesaro
Recorded live on 11th and 13th April 2007
Picture format16.9. NTSC. Dolby Digital sound
Picture format: 16/9 Anamorphic. Sound formats: LPCM Stereo. DTS surround
Subtitles in English, German, French, Spanish and Italian (original language0
OPUS ARTE. OA 0987 D [2 DVDs:189min]

La pietra del paragone is seventh in the Rossini opera oeuvre and one of no fewer than six of his operatic works that had their first performance in 1812 when the composer was a mere twenty years old. I was his first commission for La Scala, then as now one of the most prestigious theatres in Italy. The first night of La pietra del paragone was a resounding success, the opera going on to a further fifty-two performance that season. It was undoubtedly the pinnacle of Rossini's first period and barely a year before he received international recognition with Tancredi and LíItaliana in Algeri premiered at Venice's La Fenice and San Benedetto theatres respectively. It was in the finale of La pietra del paragone that the public first heard the Rossini crescendo. Most importantly, as a consequence of its success the composer was exempted military service; very useful with ninety thousand Italian conscripts sustaining heavy losses in the Peninsular War and on the Russian Campaign!

The libretto, by Luigi Romanelli, is no masterpiece of verse but does allow Rossini to show off his paces as a wit and as a romantic scene painter. The improbable, not to say convoluted plot, involves the affluent Count Asdrubale who wants a wife who will love him for himself not his wealth or status. He is pursued by three widows and construes a plot to be seen to be bankrupt. This enables him to ascertain that it is only Clarice of the three who really loves him. She in turn tests the Count by disguising herself as her own twin brother and threatening to remove Clarice. Needless to say all ends happily. Unusually in opera, a bass and a low mezzo or contralto sings the two lovers.

Despite its reputation amongst Rossini enthusiasts and scholars, La pietra del paragone has fared poorly in the theatre and on record. A 1972 recording on Vanguard featuring the young Carreras is still shown in the catalogue, as has been an abbreviated live performance on Nuovo Era. The opera featured at Glyndebourne in 1964 in a bowdlerised Germanic version that greatly offended Gui and, to the best of my knowledge, hasn't been seen there since. However, the work has maintained its popularity in Germany in a version by Günther Rennart under the title Die Liebespoke which the booklet accompanying the Naxos recording from Bad Wildbad in 2001(Review) suggests takes away much of the charm of the original and degrades it to an operetta.

The establishment of the Rossini Foundation at Pesaro, the composer's birthplace, and the associated annual Rossini Festival, were bound to get round to this work and it was presented there, in this updated staging, in 2002. The Pesaro production transferred to the Teatro Real, Madrid where this performance was filmed in April 2007. My viewing of it followed within two weeks that of the Naïve label DVD (V 5089) of performances of the opera at the Théâtre du Châtelet, Paris, in January 2007 and reviewed elsewhere on this site. As I noted then, it never rains but that it pours. Yes, but it respect of the two DVD recordings chalk and cheese are more apt. The only things that the two performances have in common are an excellent tenor as Giocondo, the Countís friend, and an updated production, including a swimming pool and a game of tennis.

It is no accident that the biggest strength of the Naïve performance was in the singing of an experienced Rossinian as Giocondo. In this performance, and hardly into the overture, albeit with a symphony orchestra not a period instrument band, it is the verve, vitality and sheer brio that flow under Alberto Zeddaís baton that hit me (Disc 1 Ch.2). Hardly unexpected in a way, as Zedda is as well known as an accomplished Rossini conductor as well as being a scholar of note who helped establish the Rossini Foundation nearly thirty years ago. He has been conducting the composerís works for even longer and has a distinguished discography to his credit. Importantly Zedda and his producer also have a very experienced team of Rossini singers on stage. Some, like Raúl Gimenez as Giocondo, have specialised in bel canto including Rossini for nearly twenty years. I admired Gimenezís impassioned singing and acting as Argirio in the performances of Tancredi deriving from the Pesaro production (Review). He shows similar vocal strengths here, acting the part of Giocondo with appropriate élan, suave demeanour and conviction (Disc 1 Ch.3 and Disc 2 Ch.3). As his friend, and for whom he concedes Clarice, Ivo Vinco as Count Asdrubale is another seasoned Rossini performer, albeit of a more recent vintage. I was greatly impressed with his Dandini in La Cenerentola (Review) whilst finding his Mustafa in LíItaliana in Algeri not yet wholly convincing vocally (Review). Here, his firm flexible lightish bass is perfectly suited to the role. Add Vincoís natural seeming acting, whether as suave and debonair land owning aristocrat of act one, supposed bankrupt (Disc 1 Ch.11), or lovelorn suitor when he thinks Clarice has been removed from him (Disc 2 Ch. 8) and his is a convincing all round portrayal. As the journalist Macrobi, the experienced Pietro Spagnoli (Disc 1 Ch.10) and Poalo Bordogna as the ardent poet Pacuvio (Disc 1 Ch.8) add quality to the male line up in both singing and acting.

As I have already noted, unusually in opera, the lovers in La pietra del paragone are from the lowest vocal registers. As Clarice, the widow who really loves the Count rather than his money and status, Marie-Ange Todorovich is more a low mezzo than true contralto. Tall and elegant in whichever on the many opulent dresses that adorn each of the ladies in this production, she sings and acts with total conviction. Add vocal flexibility and expression in Rossiniís florid writing, good legato and palette of colours and she is the near ideal counterpart to Ivo Vincoís elegantly sung and played Count (Disc 1 Ch.5 and Disc 2 Ch.7). I found the Fulvia of Particia Biccire, who sang Oscar in Verdiís Un Ballo in Maschera at Covent Garden in 2007, a little thin vocally (Disc 1 Ch. 5). As the third widow in pursuit of the Count, Laura Brioli acts well and plays her part in ensembles.

The plot lends itself to updating and Pier Luigi Pizzi goes the whole hog. The set for both acts is based on the Counts two storey villa fronting on to a swimming pool, complete with water. There is some splashing about in decorous swimming attire, for the men as well as the women, in act one! Only in some of the excessive frolics surrounding Clariceís return as her twin brother, the pitch requirements of which probably explains the role being written for a contralto, did I find the stage business overdone (Disc 2 CH.7). Otherwise, Pier Luigi Pizzi handles the details of the unfolding plot with the sure hand I expect from him. The grassed grounds of the Countís estate extend round the orchestra pit and down into the auditorium; probably because of the productionís origins in the small Pesaro theatre. Various entrances and exits are affected via the auditorium including the departure and return of the hunters (Disc 2 Chs.1-2) and soldiers (Ch.7) portrayed with commitment and sung with vocal vibrancy. Although Pier Luigi Pizziís experienced hand is to be seen in many details of the set and production and which allows the work to be fully enjoyed in this updating, I could not help wondering how the La Scala premiere was staged. Perhaps someone will unearth the production details and mis en scene from the theatre archives and mount a production based round it.

This early work of the young Rossini has all the hallmarks of his emerging genius, including a musical representation of a storm and march as well as a characterful overture. Sound wise, the soloistís voices are a little recessed compared with the orchestra, particularly when singing from the upper storey of the Countís villa. Otherwise this production, as well as its orchestral playing and singing, better represents Rossiniís early work than the Théâtre du Châtelet production. Each act is presented on one disc.

Robert J Farr.



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