This production was a big hit at the Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris in 2007, and this DVD deserves to be no less popular. Some have called La Pietra del Paragone (The Touchstone) the least-known of Rossini's masterpieces. It was his seventh opera, and it appeared in 1812, but there's nothing momentous about the plot. In brief, it concerns the marriageable Count Asdrubale who is wealthy and therefore of great interest to many women – notably Aspasia, Fulvia, and Clarice. Only Clarice, however, loves him for something other than his riches. There are male hangers-on associated with the women: the corrupt journalist Macrobio, the poetaster Pacuvio, and Giocondo, who is Asdrubale's true friend, but who has his own eyes on Clarice. To test his friends and would-be fiancées, Asdrubale pretends that he has been bankrupted. Sure enough, only Clarice and Giocondo stand by him, and when his fortune is "miraculously" saved, the three have the last laugh on everyone else.
Well, not quite the last laugh, because that is only act I! In act II, the false friends try to derail Asdrubale's budding affection for Clarice by showing him what appears to be an amorous tryst between Clarice and Giocondo. Clarice is only partly successful in explaining the situation, so she pretends to be her long-lost twin brother, back from the wars to take Clarice away. This does the trick and Asdrubale finally reveals the depth of his feelings for Clarice to the "brother." Clarice reveals her true identity, and the opera ends joyfully.
Pietra has some wonderful musical numbers – the opening to act II – for example, but like many of Rossini's operas, it feels a little overlong. When you have a production as innovative and entertaining as this one, however, it hardly matters. Director Giorgio Barberio Corsetti has set the production in what looks like the early 1960s – the women are striving for a "Jackie O" look. The real innovation, though, is the contribution of video artist Pierrick Sorin. Sorin, who had barely set foot in an opera house prior to Pietra, hits the jackpot here with his use of blue screen technology. In short, using tiny cameras, even tinier sets, and gigantic screens hanging over the stage, through a kind of video mixing the singers appear to inhabit any number of fanciful settings, and, with the use of blue-clad assistants, appear to perform a myriad of improbable actions. For example, in the opera's first scene, Asdrubale seems to straddle a giant banana – an apt phallic symbol! – and diminutive artistes can be made to appear in Macrobio's bowl of spaghetti or on top of his pizza. After Asdrubale's supposed financial collapse, giant mice stalk the ruins of his villa. I suppose one could argue that all of this is distracting, but Pietra is a comedy, any in comedy, all's fair, as long as it works. Furthermore, it is a comedy about illusions, so Sorin's clever use of video technology is not unrelated to the opera's theme.
Another advantage of this technology is that it invited the use of close-ups. Even audiences in the Théâtre du Châtelet had the opportunity to enjoy a more intimate experience with the singers on stage, and to read their every expression. For those of us viewing the DVD at home, it is as immediate as a sitcom, although the whole-stage experience is preserved too. Finally, video director Philippe Béziat has edited the production with the same lively rhythms heard in Rossini's score. This production is a delight and a wonderment to watch.
It is not bad to hear, either. After hearing this DVD, and a recent production of Il Viaggio a Reims, also from the Théâtre du Châtelet but with an all-Russian cast (Opus Arte DVD OA0967D), I'm beginning to wonder if Rossini's comedies shouldn't be the property of young singers. They might not always be "big names," but a cast of 20- and 30-somethings has a sparkle that even Marilyn Horne might have found difficult to beat at the peak of her career. They also tend to be excellent actors. In fact, the cast of Pietra hams it up like crazy, which is entirely appropriate, given Corsetti's and Sorin's non-traditional approach. I was thrilled by contralto Sonia Prina, whose very timbre bespeaks wit and fun, and whose joy in Rossini's most florid passages is unmistakable. As Asdrubale, François Lis has an unusual but not an unpleasant sound – almost like the vocal equivalent of flannel. His singing is more monochromatic than Prina's, but he too is a very watchable actor. Zapata sounds like a Rossini tenor-in-training – the style is in place, but he doesn't sound quite comfortable with it yet. (Giocondo was a very early role for José Carreras!) The nemesis roles are done with a light touch and fairly light, flexible voices too. It is conductor Jean-Christophe Spinosi who makes everything percolate in this production, though. Conducting Ensemble Matheus, a period instruments ensemble, Spinosi keeps the performance full of life and energy without ever making it seem driven.
The sound and picture (16:9 anamorphic) are just about perfect, and the English subtitles are great. The second CD contains interviews with Spinosi and Sorin, and a very interesting film about one of Sorin's video installations. Suffice it to say that where Sorin is concerned, as well as in La Pietra del Paragone, things are seldom what they seem!
Copyright © 2008 by Raymond Tuttle