Robert J Farr
, December 2004
"La pietra del paragone is seventh in the Rossini oeuvre and one of no fewer than six of his operas that had their first performance in 1812 when the composer was a mere twenty years old. Of these six works, the farsa, Linganno felice, first produced on 8 January that year, was largely written in 1811. The production in May 1812 of Demetrio e Polibio, his first stage work, was a delayed student effort. However, the remaining works were written in 1812 itself; quite a pace of composition. This might explain the illness that further compounded the first night pressures of La pietra del paragone at La Scala. Rossini had been greatly helped in securing the commission from La Scala by two singers who had appeared in his earlier works at Teatro San Moisè Venice, where five of his first nine operas received their first productions. The first night of La pietra del paragone on 26 September was a resounding success, going on to a further 52 performances that season. It was undoubtedly the pinnacle of Rossinis first period and barely a year before he received international recognition with Tancredi and LItaliana in Algeri premiered at Venices 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. More importantly the composer was, as a consequence of its success, exempted military service; very useful when the 90,000 Italian conscripts were sustaining heavy losses in the Peninsular War and on the Russian Campaign!
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 Nuova Era. It 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 Naxos booklet 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. It was presented there, in an updated staging, in 2002, a year after its production at the Wildbad Festival from which this live recording originates.
The libretto of the opera, by Luigi Romanelli, one of La Scala’s resident writers, was according to Richard Osborne (‘Rossini’, Dent’s ‘Master Musicians’ series) ‘no masterpiece but allowed Rossini to show off his paces to Italy’s smartest audience as a wit, 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 status or wealth. He is pursued by three widows and constructs a plot to be seen to be bankrupt which 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.
Most unusually in opera, a bass and a low mezzo or contralto sing the two lovers, the Count and Clarice. In this performance Clarice is sung by the Polish mezzo Agata Bienkowska who graduated from the ‘Danzig Musikhochschule’ in 1998. She made an impact at Wildbad that year in ‘Il Viaggio a Reims’ under the baton of the eminent Rossini scholar and conductor Alberto Zedda. The following years she was awarded the festival’s ‘Bel-Canto Prize’. Since then she has gone on to sing the ‘primo’ Rossini roles of Cenerentola, Rosina and Isabella at the Rome Opera and Tancredi elsewhere in Italy. These are the cream of the Rossini mezzo roles and her Clarice here evinces a rich-toned flexible voice of considerable promise (CD 1 tr. 6). As the Count, Raffaele Costantini is firm voiced with the odd raw patch in his tone but he characterises well (CD 1 trs. 7-10). Gioacchino Zarrelli as the poet is rather throaty in his aria ‘Ombretta stegnose’ (CD 1 t. 11) whilst the Polish bass Dariusz Machej as the venal journalist is deserving of his promotion to Pesaro. As Giocondo, friend of the Count and modest suitor of Clarice, Alessandro Codeluppi is full toned and steady in his Act 2 scene and aria (CD 2 trs. 5-6). Unfortunately he has too much steel in his voice and is a little strained by the higher tessitura in ensembles to be the ideal Rossini tenor.
The conductor, Alessandro de Marchi, is well known in early music circles. He brings clear articulation to the ensembles but without sweeping the listener along with the plot and Rossini’s creation. In this respect he is certainly not helped by the frequent breaks for applause at the end of each ‘number’. By the end these become positively intrusive. The recording is clear with a good balance between voices and orchestra in what sounds like a smallish theatre. Stage noise intrudes from time to time (CD 1 trs. 11-12). The booklet has a simple track-listing, a very diffuse essay on the background and composition of the opera and a track-related synopsis interspersed with scene descriptions ... rather confusing. There are very welcome artist profiles.
This performance does not convert me to the view held by some that ‘La pietra del paragone’ is the first full flowering of Rossini’s genius. ‘Tancredi’ premiered six months later on 6 February 1813 and ‘L’Italiana in Algeri’ on 22 May of the same year are true works of genius."