Rossini – La Pietra del Paragone

Théâtre du Châtelet, Paris, Thursday January 18 2007

Conductor: Jean-Christophe Spinosi. Production and video: Giorgio Barberio Corsetti, Pierrick Sorin. Marchesina Clarice: Sonia Prina. Baronessa Aspasia: Jennifer Holloway. Donna Fulvia: Laura Giordano. Pacuvio: Christian Senn. Conte Asdrubale: François Lis. Giocondo: José Manuel Zapata. Conte Macrobio: Joan Martín-Royo. Fabrizio: Filippo Polinelli. Ensemble Matheus. Chorus of the Teatro Regio di Parma.

It isn’t often the production team gets the loudest applause of all, in Paris or elsewhere, especially for what would presumably pass, in the US, for Eurotrash. Rossini’s La Pietra del Paragone is an almost plotless piece of first-class fluff, untainted by a moment’s depth, lasting a full three hours. It requires two main things to avoid eventual lassitude: an unflaggingly entertaining, well-regulated production, and excellent playing and singing. While the singing, last night, was creditable, the production was outstandingly imaginative, ingenious and funny, hence the unusual ovation.

The story, such as it is, is simple: a rich young count decides to test the fidelity of his entourage by pretending to have lost all his fortune (misfortune being the “touchstone” of the title). Corsetti sets the affair in a 60s, nouveau-riche soap-opera paradise and plays it for farce: how the cast managed to keep up the exaggeratedly comic acting, right down to the facial expressions in close-up on camera (I’m coming to that) throughout the three hours, or even how they managed to learn it all, is a mystery to me. A silent, lugubrious, Keaton-like manservant, skinny and bent, whose gags, in the background, punctuate the show (at times at risk of distracting from the music), scored an additional hit. The brightly-coloured costumes and hairstyles were totally convincing, echt-Bewitched, and the sets blended 60s moderne, Tivoli-style Roman colonnades, pool and palm-trees with Kitsch abandon.

Only there were no sets as such. The stage was plain blue, furnished as needed with blue objects pushed, pulled or wheeled in by people in blue. Above it hung a row of three giant video screens, sometimes two rows superposed, and dolls-house-size models were brought on from the left and right and filmed live, while three cameras centre-stage filmed the singers and extras. Using the “blue screen” or “chroma key” technique familiar from cheap TV programmes, while the performers acted their pants off in this blue universe, on screen above, they appeared in the “sets”. This arrangement made possible a non-stop series of visual gags: the journalist’s “victims” writhing in his lunch, toy tanks crossing a battlefield, mice appearing as giant rats… Among the best of all were the gloomy manservant slowly flipping pancakes (speared on blue rods manipulated by a girl in blue) and a slow-motion tennis match during a flirting duet between Clarice and Giocondo (with the tennis ball speared on a blue rod, manipulated… you get the picture).

With Dessay and Florez currently playing in Donizetti in London, you couldn’t help somehow wishing they were here, or wishing Horne and Ramey were still in their prime, but the cast was, as I said, creditable and astonishingly well drilled, forming a great comic team. Sonia Prina is better in Rossini, where she can show off her considerable agility and control, than as Cornelia in Händel, but she doesn’t quite have the thrill factor. Young François Lis is an excellent comic actor, leering into the camera under his toupee, but sounds like a bass who hasn’t finished singing school, with problems of both control and intonation.

The rest of the cast were solid, in particular José-Manuel Zapata and Christian Senn, both true Rossini voices, just the right weight and style. The female rivals pulled faces at one another with great charm.

The Ensemble Matheus uses period instruments, giving us unaccustomed outbursts (for Rossini) of Sturm und Drang drama in the woodwind and brass and some very wicked portamenti and chirping grace notes. A very different Rossini from, say, Abbado and the European Chamber Orchestra. But as I was sitting in the orchestra stalls, not far from the front, any more detail was muffled by the parapet of the pit.

There were microphones around, but no cameras. With video-in-video, I’m not sure how this could be made into a DVD, but Les Paladins was, so why not La Pietra? Maybe there were cameras in Parma and the DVD is already in production; In that case, too, we’ll get Michele Pertusi as the Count. If so, I’ll certainly buy it.

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