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8.660093-95 - ROSSINI: Pietra del paragone (La)
Gioachino Rossini (1792-1868)
La pietra del paragone
No other opera of Rossini has been so highly praised in the literature of the subject and yet so seldom performed as La pietra del paragone. In common with many other misunderstandings about the composer, this goes back to Stendhal, who described it as Rossini’s greatest work in the genre of opera buffa. This judgement by the French writer is unfortunately not reflected in the performance schedules of opera houses.
La pietra del paragone was the first stage work that Rossini wrote for La Scala, Milan. Here the young composer abandoned for the first time the narrow geographical area of Bologna-Ferrara-Venice, in which his life had up to then been spent. According to general opinion he was helped in this Milan engagement by the singer Marietta Marcolini, who had already appeared in two Rossini premières, L’equivoco stravagante and Ciro in Babilonia.
When Rossini actually came to Milan is not recorded. Already on 11th July 1812 he had written both the first numbers for the opera. On 21st August Luigi Romanelli had delivered almost the whole libretto and Rossini had handed over some of the music to the copyist. Two days later the libretto was approved by the theatre authorities. After this Rossini’s illness led to final problems. On 10th September there were still six numbers either completely or partly unwritten. Four other sections were not yet scored. For this reason and because of the composer’s probable period of convalescence the first performance was, at the earliest, a month away.
We do not know whether his illness took a turn for the better or whether Rossini was able to increase his speed of work. The first performance was able to take place in half the time that had been foreseen, on 26th September 1812. It was one of the greatest triumphs of the composer, who was able to celebrate a resounding success on the occasion. This success in Milan continued, with the opera receiving 53 performances, while at the last performance seven numbers had to be repeated, at the request of the public.
Hiller reports in his Chats with Rossini a still greater success for the opera: I was to become a soldier, and needed to find some way out, as I was a house-owner … But the success of that opera persuaded the general commanding in Milan to regard me favourably - he applied to the Vice-Regent Eugen, who was away, and I was allotted more peaceful duties. With this opera Rossini won the good will of the Minister of State Luigi Vaccari, who, in October 1812, spoke exceptionally positively of him: This is a young man of great culture…, who has at his command much taste, much expertise, describing him as of the highest promise.
Il barbiere di Siviglia, after an exceptional scandal at the première, brought a series of stage successes without comparison in the world, and so shaped the fate of La pietra. It was decisive that the first performance outside Milan in 1813 at the Teatro San Benedetto in Venice was unsuccessful. The Venetian failure did not mean, however, the end for this opera. Yet that it could not be counted among the first rank of Rossini operas meant that for nearly two centuries it had no place, not even a modest one, on the stage. In the years after 1962 until the middle 1980s the opera was revived, reworked by Günther Rennert, under the title Die Liebesprobe, a true renaissance in Germany.
This version took away much of the charm of the original opera and degraded it into an operetta. For the first time an original realisation, as in the present performance, makes it possible to understand the complexity of the work. This is shown not least in the title. The verbal translation Touchstone, suggests an idea not found in modern dictionaries. In Rossini’s time the alloy of gold and silver was established through a touchstone. In the transferred sense the touchstone in the opera is used in two meanings, on the one hand for the value of the character of the friends, not only of the women, and on the other to establish that of the Count. The proportion of pure metal in the alloys is found wanting in very different ways. It is not a matter of a Liebesprobe or Test of Love in the narrower sense.
The plot is often said to be much more improbable than other opera texts. The situation in which the three women competing for the Count are respectively provided with an admirer could have corresponded to the social reality of Italy at the end of the eighteenth and beginning of the nineteenth centuries. Unmarried women had only one aim, marriage. After the wedding other liaisons could be entertained. A married woman could be permitted much, a single woman nothing.
Of particular interest, however, is that the opera has not only the plot in the foreground, but is to be seen as part of an actual literary-musical argument. It is not coincidental that all three admirers are of a literary turn. Two of them in different ways bear negative connotations in their names, taken from Roman writers, Macrobius (A.D. 400) and Pacuvius (220-130 B.C.). Both are indeed caricatures of their namesakes, while the third, Giocondo, has a name that does not suit him at all, since he is anything but cheerful.
The occasion of the dispute must have been the opera Le bestie in uomini (The Beasts in Men) by Giuseppe Mosca. Mosca’s opera came immediately before La pietra del paragone on 17th August 1812 at La Scala with the same cast as Rossini’s first performance. Without a closer knowledge of the text of Mosca’s opera it is difficult to make out the cause of the dispute, but two parallels between the operas can be mentioned. Textually Rossini’s opera has similarities with Mosca’s, at all events in the basic group of characters. Here three women compete for one man, while in Mosca’s opera there are three men who set their sights on the enchantress Alcina. It is notable that at least one of the leading characters in Mosca has a Roman name, Pasquino. The tailor Pasquino in the sixteenth century attached lampoons and epigrams to a marble statue in Rome, later known as pasquinades. Another character is called Marforio. This may not be absolutely certainly an allusion to a historical person (perhaps Mavortius, A.D. 527, a consul with literary interests), but there are striking similarities between the names Pasquino and Pacuvio, Marforio and Macrobio, and it cannot be out of the question that the parts were sung by the same singers.
There are further indications. In his report on a busy day at the office Macrobio observes that there is a noise in the anteroom ‘come di mosche o pecchie’ (like flies or drones), mosche a possible allusion to the Mosca brothers. The double entendre was clear to contemporaries. Further, Pacuvio’s nonsense aria ‘Ombretta sdegnosa’ can be mentioned, which has at least two interpretations, as a conversation between fish (a caricature of Mosca’s ‘bestie’?) and as talk between playing cards, but a conversation is also possible between the shadow of a sorcerer and a fish. The shadow of a sorcerer could be a reference to Mosca’s sorceress Alcina.
It is open to question whether Rossini went indeed first to the literary feud or only to the plot of a piece full of suggestions and double meanings. A serious sonnet by Giocondo in the second act, which was not set to music by Rossini, was at all events only used for the first three performances and then cut out.
Uniquely in Rossini’s work the rôles of the two lovers are entrusted to contralto and bass. The tenor has only a subsidiary, if musically very appealing part. This corresponded to current practice in that year in Milan. A partly similar grouping is found also in Rossini’s Turco in Italia (La Scala, 1814).
The misfortune that Rossini underwent through his illness proves particularly fortunate for us. We can at least partly follow the composer’s working method. Nearly all the numbers still lacking on 10th September and not scored are arias (Nos 3, 8, 14, 16, 18, 19). The Quintet, No.15, and the Overture still had to be scored. Only one ensemble was completely lacking, the Terzetto of Finale I. Almost all the numbers already composed were ensembles. Rossini composed his operas starting with the ensembles, a practice of which L’italiana in Algeri also offers some evidence. The regularly repeated ‘instruction’ of Rossini on the composition of overtures is demonstrably wrong. The Sinfonia was not written last but waited only for scoring.
How then can the remarkable discrepancy between Stendhal’s judgement and the until today unsatisfactory reception history of the opera be explained? It comes in part from the musical taste of Stendhal, who was by no means the great admirer of Rossini as he is performed today. His preference was rather for the music of Cimarosa. The closer Rossini stayed to this style, the greater his pleasure in it. This means that Stendhal had no understanding of Rossini’s later music. For him Rossini’s music stops in 1813. This easily explains the rating given to La pietra by Stendhal, who did not even know all the early one act operas.
For us La pietra del paragone is the two-act opera buffa between L’equivoco stravagante and L’italiana in Algeri. The three operas, written in the space of a year cover the period of development from operas in the freshness of youth to mature masterpieces. In this development La pietra stands closer to L’equivoco, from which some elements were taken over, than to L’italiana. In the nineteenth century three masterpieces of opera buffa by Rossini held their place, not the earlier works that he had quickly outstripped in style. That explains much, if not everything in the peculiar features of the reception history of the work. Listeners today have acquired an understanding of these early works completely different from that of Rossini’s contemporaries and wish, therefore, like Lessing, that the opera be less praised and more often performed.
English version by Keith Anderson
The action takes place in a rich village, not far from one of the principal cities of Italy, in the neighbourhood of the same village, and in Count Asdrubale’s pleasant country house there.
A mixed chorus of Count Asdrubale’s guests and gardeners. First Pacuvio, then, on one side, Fabrizio, on the other Baroness Aspasia, and finally Donna Fulvia.
 Guests and gardeners join in praise of Count Asdrubale, his wealth and nobility, as well as his difficulty in choosing a wife. Pacuvio enters, holding some papers and calling for attention, wishing to read his new poem in which Alceste talks with the shade of Arbace. No-one wants to hear him, but catching sight of Fabrizio, he promises to enchant his ears with the verse. Fabrizio tries to disengage himself, and is called by the Baroness, to whom Pacuvio now turns. She does not want to hear him, and Pacuvio turns to one or the other, determined to read his poem, now interrupted by Donna Fulvia.
 Pacuvio addresses first Fabrizio, then the Baroness, who leave him with Donna Fulvia, who has been more disposed to listen.
Pacuvio and Donna Fulvia
Pacuvio calls Donna Fulvia his treasure but she tells him that she aspires to the hand of the Count, not for love, but because he is rich. When she is married, she will see that Pacuvio is taken care of. They move away, as Macrobio and Giocondo approach.
Macrobio and Giocondo enter, arguing.
 Macrobio and Giocondo argue in angry and abusive words on the rival merits of journalism and poetry.
 Macrobio changes the subject, seeking to know which of the women has a better chance with Giocondo’s friend, the Count, suggesting the Marchesa Clarice, on whom Giocondo’s heart is set. Macrobio pretends to sympathize with him over his coming disappointment and they part.
The Marchesa Clarice, answered by the Count, pretending to be an echo.
 Clarice is soon aware of the presence of the Count, whose echoes seem to suggest his love for her, as she declares her own.
 She pretends that echo is her only consolation.
She recalls the words that the Count has echoed, seemingly a declaration of his love, and considers that her rivals have little chance, although she has doubts about the Count’s true intentions. She resolves to hide in the garden, to see what transpires.
The Count enters alone, seeing if the Marchesa has gone.
 He claims that if he did not know that women were deceivers, he would have pity for Clarice, and inveighs against the ideas of pity and of love.
 Everyone is surprised that, now thirty, he has not married, rich as he is. Yet wealth is the problem, and he would like to know which of the rival women pursuing him values him for himself rather than for his riches.
 Clarice teases the Count by asking him whether echo is masculine or feminine and whether it moves around, tempting him. She suggests the true identity of the echo, and reminds him of the words of his echo. As they part, he tells her that echoes sometimes joke.
Donna Fulvia, then Pacuvio
 Fulvia is seeking the Count, to give him a rose. She is interrupted by Pacuvio.
At last he is able to recite his ridiculous verse of the disdainful shadelet by the Missipipì, after which he makes to leave.
 She congratulates him, before seeing the Count.
They are joined by the Count, pensive and approaching slowly.
The Count muses that his heart favours Clarice. Fulvia accosts him and gives him the rose.
Fabrizio and the Count
The Count confides in Fabrizio his plan to test the women by disguising himself as an African, with Fabrizio’s help.
Rooms giving onto the garden.
Giocondo and Clarice, then Macrobio and the Count
Giocondo asks Clarice why she is so sad, and she tells him she is recalling her twin, Lucindo, a useful device. Giocondo regrets her preoccupation with the Count, his friend and rival, and wishes she would look favourably on him. They are joined by Macrobio, at which Clarice assumes a cheerful expression. Macrobio wishes that journalists would give proper reasons for their views. An argument is about to follow, when Clarice interrupts by declaring that all three of them are equally unreasonable.
 The Count, she says, will and will not, Giocondo is silent or sighs, and Macrobio praises or criticizes, each with a reason. They all claim justification. Clarice tells them they are all fools.
Fabrizio appears and gives the Count a note, which he reads, seeming disturbed.
The other three comment on the Count’s reception of this news, while he himself resolves to put on a pretence of perturbation, arousing the curiosity of the others, as they leave.
Pacuvio and Donna Fulvia, then the Baroness
 Pacuvio is anxious to show Macrobio his new verse, on the value of which Donna Fulvia has some reservations; she does not understand why the Count is laughing. Pacuvio suggests it is for joy. The Baroness comes in, paying no attention to either of them; she is looking for Macrobio, whom Pacuvio will fetch immediately, as he hurries away.
The Baroness and Donna Fulvia, later joined by Pacuvio, who returns with Macrobio
The Baroness suggests that Fulvia is sad, which she denies, and they each imply their intimacy with the Count. Pacuvio returns with Macrobio, trying to impress him with his new composition, but the latter assures him that he has a vast supply of material.
 Macrobio tells of the pressures upon him as a journalist. A prima ballerina reports great success in Solimano, paying for the intended notice. The mother of a prima donna reports her daughter’s great success at La Fenice, which Macrobio again promises to notice. He goes on to list the many virtuosi of all kinds who expect attention, a conductor, a poet and others. He leaves, together with the Baroness.
The Garden, as before
Chorus of gardeners, who leave shortly afterwards
 The gardeners announce that the Count is sad and miserable, in his room, afflicted by some cruel turn of Fate.
Clarice comes into the garden, withdrawing modestly from Giocondo. Macrobio appears and finally the Baroness and Donna Fulvia.
 Giocondo asks Clarice why she is leaving and what she fears, and she tells him that she is afraid of becoming too proud, when she hears his praise of her. They are observed by Macrobio, who, aloud, pretending not to notice them, recalls the famous forbidden love of Medoro and Angelica. He announces the Count, to the alarm of the other two, but refers, of course, to Count Orlando in the story of the two lovers.
 Macrobio pretends to notice the other two, who understand his drift, while he claims to be speaking of Angelica and Medoro and the poor Count, so deceived.
Macrobio leaves, and the other two are about to go, when the Baroness and Fulvia appear.
 The Baroness and Fulvia are horrified, since it seems the Count has lost everything; they have been lucky to escape from marriage with him. Clarice and Giocondo ask about this news, but the Baroness and Fulvia hurry away to find out more.
Macrobio returns, and then Pacuvio from the opposite side. About to leave, Clarice and Giocondo meet Macrobio.
Macrobio has literary allusions to great losses, references that Clarice and Giocondo understand little. Pacuvio, in agitation, claims that now the Count has no table and no cook. His creditor will invite him, Macrobio suggests. Clarice and Giocondo seek information on the matter. From Japan, says Pacuvio. No, from Canada, says Macrobio. A Turk from Britain, says the first. A German born in the Land of Drink. Unenlightened, Clarice and Giocondo hurry away.
The other two are joined by the Baroness and Donna Fulvia, then by the Count, disguised, accompanied by servants and sailors similarly disguised. A notary appears, with fictitious court officials, and Fabrizio, who feigns extreme affliction.
There is mutual recrimination between Pacuvio and Macrobio, quietened by the Baroness and Fulvia, as the Count, in disguise, approaches, speaking in broken Italian to Fabrizio, and holding a worn out paper, a bill of credit for six million. The mercenary intentions of the others are apparent, and the Count comments on them, aside. Macrobio says that the man is speaking Etruscan, but it is clear that the stranger intends to put a seal on all the Count’s possessions, including the belongings of the Baroness and Donna Fulvia, the papers of Macrobio and the dramas of Pacuvio. They are happy to have the Count’s goods impounded, but not their own possessions.
An inner courtyard in the Count’s house
Clarice is alone, then joined by the Count and Giocondo, whom she does not see, while she is not seen by them. Macrobio and Pacuvio, the Baroness and Donna Fulvia then appear.
 Clarice muses on her own constancy and sincerity. The Count appears, in his own dress, pretending to be sad at his misfortune. Giocondo tries to comfort him and they agree that misfortune may serve as a touchstone.
 Macrobio, Pacuvio, the Baroness and Donna Fulvia, tell Clarice that the Count is all hers, observed by the Count and Giocondo. Coming forward, the Count asks what help his supposed friends can give him. Macrobio offers an article, Pacuvio an elegy. The Baroness and Fulvia have nothing to offer, but Giocondo warmly offers his house and Clarice her hand, a situation on which they all comment.
Fabrizio comes in cheerfully, with an old piece of paper in his hand. The chorus of guests and gardeners is equally happy.
 Fabrizio announces that he has found in the dust in an abandoned cupboard a document that solves the Count’s difficulties. The others react as might be expected, Clarice and Giocondo with sincerity, and the others feigning delight. All comment on the mutability of things.
An internal courtyard, as in Act I.
The Baroness, Donna Fulvia and the Count’s guests, then Macrobio and the Count on one side, Giocondo and Pacuvio on the other.
 The chorus announce that the stranger has left empty-handed. The Baroness and Fulvia, humiliated, now the ruse is revealed, will take revenge, perhaps on the Count, on Clarice and on Giocondo. Macrobio tells the Count that he was joking, an excuse that the Count would be spared, while Pacuvio pleads poetic licence to Giocondo, to the latter’s contempt. The Baroness and Fulvia comment on their behaviour.
 Giocondo and the Count comment on the behaviour of their false friends. Macrobio tells the Baroness that he will dispute the matter and demand an apology, a technique fresh from China, that he will publish in his paper. Pacuvio, addressing Fulvia, declares that Giocondo has secretly offered an apology. Meanwhile the Count and Giocondo look on, entertained by the pretensions of the others. The Count comes forward to suggest a hunting party, telling a servant to fetch Clarice.
Macrobio and the Baroness are about to go, but are detained by Donna Fulvia.
Fulvia whispers something to the Baroness, as she goes. The latter tells Macrobio how Pacuvio had had satisfaction from Giocondo, a claim that Macrobio doubts, but insists that he defend her honour, in his turn.
Pacuvio with a gun, and a chorus of huntsmen
 The huntsmen ironically urge Pacuvio to action, before they leave.
Pacuvio clearly has no idea how to shoot, propping the gun first against one shoulder then another.
 The wind mounts and the wood grows dark. There are sounds of gunshots from the distance, with birds in flight. Pacuvio makes ineffectual attempts at shooting, and runs off. The wind increases and the wood grows even darker. There are flashes of lightning. Pacuvio returns, terrified.
Pacuvio is anxious to find safety, having lost his gun and his poems.
He runs off, as the storm subsides.
 Giocondo speaks of the storm in his own heart, as he imagines his beloved Clarice in the arms of his rival and friend.
 He thinks of her beauty and her lack of regard for him as a lover, as he is about to go.
Clarice joins him, followed later by Macrobio, the Count and the Baroness.
 Clarice is calling Giocondo, and Giocondo is surprised to see her alone, the Count having gone into the wood with some of his people, leaving her to be escorted by two of his men. Giocondo starts to address Clarice in his usual high-flown poetic terms. She tries to silence him, but he tells her of the three rival elements that disturb him, her fortune, his love and his friendship, the last of which, she tells him, he must keep.
Clarice tells Giocondo to hope, but in silence, and one day she will free him from his bonds.
Meanwhile Macrobio appears, calling for the Count, whom he sees in the distance. They are joined by the Baroness.
The Baroness calls for Macrobio, who ironically describes her as the first among the widows to boast fidelity. The Count, unobserved by Giocondo and Clarice, remarks that women are always women, seeing what appears to be a flirtation between Giocondo and Clarice, who seems to promise him love, to his joy, but these are just words, she says, to give him hope. The Count comes forward and accuses Clarice of duplicity.
They are joined by the huntsmen.
The huntsmen declare that their shooting-party has gone badly, although the Count had seemingly bagged two cuckoos, a reference to which Clarice takes exception, as the storm resumes.
The rooms, as in the first act.
Donna Fulvia and Fabrizio, then Pacuvio, breathless
 Pacuvio tells Donna Fulvia what slaughter of wild life he would have wrought, but for the weather. He takes a tiny dead bird out of his pocket, a sign of his achievement. Donna Fulvia has no use for it, and as she goes Pacuvio admits, as he leaves, that the bird died of fear.
Count Asdrubale and the Cavalier Giocondo
Giocondo has explained Clarice’s innocence to the Count, but before the latter can take any step towards marriage, he resolves to entertain himself by making fun of Macrobio.
As they are about to go, Clarice comes happily in with an unsealed letter in her hand.
Clarice announces the unexpected return of her beloved twin brother, Captain Lucindo. Returned from Elysium, the Count suggests, but Clarice assures them that he is still alive and has written to her. In an aside she begs forgiveness from her dead brother for using his name in this way. The Count offers an invitation to him and will take no refusal.
They are about to go when Donna Fulvia and Pacuvio come in.
According to Pacuvio, Donna Fulvia had spread word of his secret supposed humiliation of Giocondo. She had only whispered it to the Marchioness in confidence, and the Marchioness had told Macrobio in confidence, and Macrobio had published the news in his journal, which means he will seem to have broken his word, and be in some danger, in any case.
 Donna Fulvia thinks nothing of this. The penalty for public outrage must be public, to teach anyone who insults her a lesson.
Macrobio, joined by Giocondo, then the Count and two servants, each bearing a sword.
 Giocondo haughtily offers Macrobio a choice of pistol, and the latter tries to excuse himself. The Count now also claims satisfaction.
 Macrobio suggests that Giocondo and the Count should settle the matter for priority between themselves, and he will fight the survivor. As they have arranged beforehand, the Count and Giocondo take swords from the servants, to the apparent relief of Macrobio, but soon lay them down again, as the Count, the host, must give way to his guest. Macrobio is terrified, but the Count suggests an idea to end the affair. Macrobio must admit that he is a coward, venal, a ridiculous trifler, the greatest ignoramus. He agrees and the Count and Giocondo hand their swords back to the servants, and they all leave.
In the village, various houses and among others those of the Count. A view of the countryside, with a small hill to one side.
Pacuvio comes out of the Count’s house, then Donna Fulvia, the Baroness and Macrobio.
 Donna Fulvia inveighs against Pacuvio, calling him a liar and impostor. Macrobio enters, assuring the Baroness that he has not been wounded, but if only she could have seen the duel.
Fabrizio comes down the hill and joins the others, while various people from the village look towards the countryside with some curiosity.
Fabrizio announces the approach of Captain Lucindo, who looks very like his sister Clarice, as the Baroness and Donna Fulvia observe.
They step aside, as Clarice enters, dressed in uniform, with a lieutenant, a sergeant, two corporals and soldiers, watched by the people of the village and the Count’s servants.
 Clarice pretends gladness at seeing her own country again, addressing her soldiers, who thank her for her bravery in face of danger. She proclaims the victory of Mars and Cupid.
Clarice enters the Count’s house, accompanied by Fabrizio and the Count’s servants, while the onlookers disperse.
The Baroness and Macrobio; Pacuvio and Donna Fulvia come forward.
 Commenting on the likeness between the handsome officer and Clarice, the Baroness and Donna Fulvia make their way back into the Count’s house, resolved to try their chance.
Clarice in military uniform, Count Asdrubale and the Cavalier Giocondo
The supposed Captain Lucindo assures the Count and Giocondo that he intends to take Clarice away with him. They are dismayed, but the Count tells Giocondo that he understands his former folly.
 The Count pleads with the supposed Lucindo for pity, now openly declaring his love for Clarice, without whom he cannot live.
The Count rushes out, followed by Giocondo.
The Baroness, then Donna Fulvia, with Clarice, and finally all together
 Fabrizio runs in, begging Lucindo’s agreement to the Count’s wishes, or the latter will kill himself. The Baroness and Donna Fulvia comment on the scene, and try to engage the Captain in conversation. Clarice, however, has signed her true name on the paper that Fabrizio has brought from the Count, and he understands the true situation. To general amazement Clarice reveals her true identity.
 They all comment on this revelation. Clarice and the Count demand pardon of each other. Macrobio, Pacuvio and Giocondo are ready to celebrate the coming marriage, while the Baroness and Donna Fulvia seem ready to content themselves with Macrobio and Pacuvio, who both demur. The Count, however, is ready to change his attitude to women, and all ends in rejoicing.
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