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Gioachino ROSSINI (1792-1868)
La pietra del paragone - melodrama giocoso in two acts (1812)
La Marchesa Clarice, in love with the Count and admired by Giocondo - Sonia Prina (contralto); Il Conte Asdrubale, a rich landowner in search of a wife who loves him not his money - Francois Lis (bass); Baronessa Aspasia, a widow looking for a rich husband - Jennifer Holloway (mezzo); Donna Fulvia, another widow on the lookout - Laura Giordano (soprano); Il Cavalier Giocondo, friend of the Count and a poet – José Manuel Zapata (tenor); Macrobio, a journalist - Joan Martín-Royo (bass-baritone); Pacuvio, a poet – Christian Senn (baritone); Fabrizio, confidante of the Count - Filipo Polinelli (bass)
Ensemble Matheus, chorus of the Teatro Reggio, Parma/Jean–Christophe Spinosi
Direction, designs and video: Giorgio Barberio Corsetti and Pierrick Sorin
Costumes and collaboration on décor: Cristian Taraborrelli
Performed in the Rossini Foundation/Casa Ricordi edition
rec. live, Théâtre du Châtelet, Paris, 24, 26, 28 January 2007
Synopsis, essays, artist profiles in French and English
NAÏVE V5089 [2 DVDs: 161:00; bonus interviews: 50:00]

La pietra del paragone is seventh in the Rossini oeuvre being 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. It was his first commission for La Scala, then, as now, one of the most prestigious theatres in Italy. Rossini had been greatly helped in securing the commission by two singers who had appeared in his earlier works at Venice’s Teatro San Moisè, where five of his first nine operas had received their first productions. The first night of La pietra del paragone on 26 September 1812 was a resounding success. It went on to a further fifty-two performances that season. It was undoubtedly the pinnacle of Rossini’s first period and barely a year before he received international recognition with Tancredi and L’Italiana 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 from military service; very useful with ninety thousand Italian conscripts sustaining heavy losses in the Peninsular War and on the Russian Campaign!
Luigi Romanelli’s libretto for La pietra del paragone allows Rossini to show off his paces as a wit and romantic scene-painter. The improbable and convoluted plot involves the affluent Count Asdrubale who wants a wife who will love him for himself not his status or wealth. He is pursued by three widows and constructs 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 who threatens to remove Clarice. Needless to say all ends happily. Most unusually in opera, a bass and a low mezzo or contralto sings the two lovers, the Count and Clarice, reflecting the availability of singers at the premiere.
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. The opera was done 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 (see review) suggests takes away much of the charm of the original and degrades it to an operetta.
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 an updated staging, in 2002. It never rains but it pours, and this Naïve DVD arrived a week before one on the Opus Arte label (OA0987D) of that Pesaro production, transferred and filmed at the Teatro Real Madrid; this will be reviewed shortly. The important difference between the two is that this recording from the Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris is of a production made with video in mind. Alongside Giorgio Corsetti it represents Pierrick Sorin’s first venture into opera. In contrast the Pesaro production performed in Madrid is in the hands of the immensely experienced opera producer Pier Luigi Pizzi.
Among other things, Pierrick Sorin is noted in Paris avant-garde circles for his models and presentations for the renowned Galérie Lafayette in the Boulevard Haussmann, just up the road from the recently refurbished magnificent Palais Garnier. He is a video artist and has made short films via the creation of small ‘optical theatres’, which enable him to appear in space in the form of a hologram among real objects. This technique, together with scenery in the form of models, is the basis of this production. The singers appear on the stage in front of cameras and carefully act out the scenes whilst they appear on screens as if moving among actual objects. It is cinematographic magic, or if you prefer, gimmickry. As far as the Théâtre du Châtelet is concerned, imaginative production is always the name of the game. With no big fly-tower or proscenium, opera productions depend on the creative imagination of designers and producers. This was the case in the performances of Rossini’s Il Viaggio A Rheims (see review) when Gergiev and the orchestra were on stage whilst the singers using minimal sets played the opera at the front of an extended stage and into the auditorium. It was a similar case when I caught John Eliot Gardiner’s Falstaff. The orchestra were wrapped round a spiral staircase on the stage with the cast entering at the top as required, whilst some of the action was on an extended stage. All fine with a young, willing and imaginative cast. I was lucky that my Fenton was in the lithe and athletic form of Juan Diego Florez. He and his Nannetta could skip up and down the stairs and still ravish the ear with delicate phrases and pianissimos!
With the creative demands in mind, a youngish cast, perhaps with few preconceived notions, was assembled. Fine for the production, less so for Rossini. His operas do require particular singing skills. Although there are no massive vocal weaknesses among the cast, those with the requisite professional Rossini experience are limited to the contralto Sonia Prina as Clarice and José Manuel Zapata as Giocondo, the Count’s friend but also the suitor of Clarice. His singing in particular would grace any Rossini production and has done so in Pesaro and elsewhere. Hardly dapper of figure, his singing is full of vocal felicities (CH.17) and that applies even when he is supposed to be playing tennis with Clarice (CH.18). Sonia Prina has a wide-ranging contralto voice and has done a lot of Baroque opera at good addresses as well as Rossini at La Scala. As yet I do not think she has the freedom of tonal expression throughout her vocal range that makes her an ideal Rossini singer able to meet the demands for fioritura and decoration. The lower male voices are all adequate and if Laura Giordano as Fulvia is a little thin-toned, at least her voice is not acidic.
The young singers are aided in expression by the fact that the Ensemble Matheus, a Baroque ensemble from Brittany in residence at the Châtelet, is not overblown and perhaps represents the kind of orchestral backing at the premiere. The conductor Christophe Spinosi keeps his eye on the stage coordination. He has a calm beat but does not convince me of his Rossinian credentials. Curvaceous body-stockinged lovelies move the model sets around, often, like the lighting, in a bluish haze.
This somewhat off-the-wall video presentation of Rossini’s first opera for La Scala seemed to go down well with the audience, although I am uncertain if what they were seeing is what is on the video. I do suggest that before watching purchasers take full advantage of the extensive booklet essays, synopsis, cast list, and biographical details, provided in English and French, to help decide who is who and what is happening. The two discs are presented in cardboard slipcases at the front and back of what to all intent and purposes is a book - very smart it looks too. The whole of the opera is contained on DVD 1, the second disc contains interviews with the conductor and Pierrick Sorin.
Robert J Farr


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