Miracles do happen, it seems. Three weeks after Rossini's La pietra del paragone received its first DVD incarnation on Opus Arte, the French Naïve label released this alternative. Remarkably, both DVDs document excellent, entertaining performances, both are extremely well filmed, both come with generous extras and both are brilliantly packaged. Yet each performance offers a different approach - musically and production-wise - so both are worthy of consideration.
Filmed in January 2007 at the Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris, Pierrick Sorin and Giorgio Barberior Corsetti's production updates the action to the 1950s or 60s. But this is an opera production with a difference. The singers perform in front of a blue background and are filmed by three cameras at the front of the stage while the action is projected onto a giant screen above their heads. Small models (which are also filmed) of interior and exterior settings are wheeled on by men and women dressed in blue skin costumes so that the live action is superimposed on top of these onto the big screen above. The results are often hilarious: characters can appear to stand inside a refrigerator, on top of a gas hob and inside a fireplace and float on a swimming pool when in reality they are just standing on the stage floor. The tennis match is similarly manipulated, and at one point a mouse appears to run behind the characters. But my favourite moment is when one of the characters flips a pancake which is then carried by a man in blue to the other side of the stage where the tenor receives it on his plate. Thanks to the big screen, it looks like the pancake made it there on its own.
However, this is not merely done in the name of entertainment. Rossini's comedies are constructed in small units along the lines of basic musical conventions. Sorin's production dissects the action in response to this construction, so that we can see how the whole thing works, thus responding to the conscious musical artifice with a different kind of artifice. I don't find the emphasis on the power of the media quite so pronounced in this production as it is in the Opus Arte version, and it's clear from the interview on the bonus disc that Sorin is no fan of Rossini's or his libretto, which probably explains why a lot of what goes on is imposed rather than a response to the text. But there's ample compensation. The fact that the singers were directed to use a wide range of facial expressions so that the big-screen projections worked well for the audience in the theatre means that this production is absorbing on DVD in a way that many filmed opera performances aren't.
As if that weren't enough, the young cast is absolutely brilliant. Prime amongst them is tenor José Manuel Zapata in the role of Giocondo. His voice is natural and beautiful, his intonation is mostly secure and his sense of style is impeccable. His aria 'Oh come il fosco impetuoso' is one of the vocal highlights of the performance.
However, it's perhaps invidious to single out individuals when there are no serious weaknesses. Sonia Prina is a splendid comedienne, making La Marchesa Clarice into a feisty character, and her true contralto voice is well suited to the difficult tessitura; Jennifer Holloway (Aspasia) and particularly Laura Giordano (Fulvia) offer strong female support; and François Lis's elegant Asdrubale is the ideal centrepiece of the varied dramatis personae. Joan Martín-Royo's Macrobio, Christian Senn's Pacuvio and Filippo Polinelli are just as superb as the rest. It has to be said that the group singing tends to be stronger than some of the arias; the singers are remarkably well co-ordinated during the tricky ensemble numbers such as the quintet in the second act but just occasionally lack the warmth and interpretative abilities shown by the older, more experienced cast on Opus Arte. On the other hand, Naïve's cast is younger and fresher, so there's not much to choose between them.
Jean-Christophe Spinosi's conducting of the period-instrument Ensemble Matheus is lively and assured. He explains in the fascinating bonus-disc interview that he had attempted to recreate the instrumental configuration of Rossini's own 1812 La Scala orchestra by having nine double basses and only three cellos. The cello was assigned the continuo role but the large number of basses underpinned the sound in a way not normally observed in the modern orchestra pit. One can really hear the different timbre created by the orchestra in this performance compared to that in the Opus Arte DVD. The period wind instruments also stand out more for their much less homogenised sounds. Overall I marginally prefer Zedda's conducting on the rival disc because of the more controlled tempi - Spinosi tends to push a bit too hard at times. But that's a very small complaint about an otherwise brilliant performance. Not to be missed.
See also our review of the Opus Arte DVD of La pietra del paragone here.