Rossini: La pietra del paragone

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WORKS: La pietra del paragone
PERFORMER: Agata Bienkowska, Anna Rita Gemmabella, Anke Herrmann, Raffaele Costantini; Czech Chamber Chorus, Czech Chamber Soloists, Brno/ Alessandro de Marchi (harpsichord)
CATALOGUE NO: 8.660093-95
Some would say that La pietra del paragone was Rossini’s first great opera, and it certainly occupies a special place in his output. Of all his early pieces it points most clearly towards his mature genius, glimpsed here already in a scintillating mixture of sparkle and pathos. Written in 1812 for La Scala – his introduction there – it pre-dates Il barbiere di Siviglia by four years, and it was the later work’s popularity that partly sealed its fate. Still, the absence of regular performances has not spoilt the reputation of La pietra del paragone as a musically rich score, with one number, the poet Pacuvio’s ballad, attaining folksong status. The ‘touchstone’ of the title is not here an object for testing precious metals but a test of sincere emotions: three women are competing for the hand of the rich but misogynistic Count Asdrubale. In this live recording from the Rossini in Wildbad Festival of 2001, it is unfortunately the Asdrubale who lets the side down, and Raffaele Costantini’s performance is a bit of a trial; he’s not a natural Rossinian and his resonant baritone sounds clumsy. That health warning apart, there are very decent performances from the baritones Gioacchino Zarrelli (Pacuvio) and Dariusz Machej (Macrobio), and the women are strong, most of all Agata Bienkowska in the central role of Clarice. This is the part in which Brigitte Fassbaender made her breakthrough in the mid-Sixties, and though Bienkowska is not in that class she has vocal presence. Alessandro de Marchi conducts with style, but stage noise, applause and slightly brittle sound detract from the overall experience. John Allison