OPERA BY THE SWIMMING POOL
Gioachino Rossini, La pietra del paragone (The touchstone) (1812)
This was Rossini’s seventh opera and his first success in a major Italian opera house, namely La Scala in Milan; but it has not remained in the repertoire. Recent revivals and recordings have revealed its worth; one comes from the Royal Theatre (Teatro Real) of Madrid (2007), with a swimming pool. The original setting of the piece was contemporary, and so is this production, with men in modern suits, and women in bathing suits.
The story revolves round the wealthy Count Asdrubale (incidentally, that is the Carthaginian name of a brother of the famous Hannibal in the 3rd century BCE, and it is the god Ba`al lurking at the end). The action takes place at his country villa.
Three women (all widows) are showing interest in Il Conte ASDRUBALE:
La Marchesa (Marchioness) CLARICE,
La Baronessa ASPASIA,
Donna (Lady) FULVIA.
The touchstone of the title is the plan he adopts with his major domo (maestro di casa) FABRIZIO to test the genuineness of the ladies’ (affected?) affections.
Warning: some scenes may be omitted.
Overture (6 m)
[1.1] Chorus (guests and gardeners) praises Count Asdrubale for his hospitality and generosity, but he seems in no hurry to marry.
PACUVIO, a self-appointed poet, is trying to get the other house guests to show an interest in his poesy about Alceste and the shade (ombra,”spectre”) of Arbace: “Ombretta sdegnosa del Missipipi ...” But all are otherwise occupied. Fulvia and Aspasia are prominent in this scene.
[1.2] Fulvia mentions to Pacuvio that she means to marry the rich nobleman, their host.
[1.3] MACROBIO, a journalist, is having a tennis match with GIOCONDA, a cavalier (no ball is visible); he threatens to print something about him. Macrobio knows the three widows are after the Count, and he predicts the Marchioness Clarice as the winner. Gioconda is a faithful friend of Asdrubale, but he loves Clarice, too.
[1.4] Echo scene: Clarice speaks of love, while Asdrubale is on an exercise machine.
[1.5] The Count, alone, muses on whether Clarice really loves him, and whether any of the three women are sincere.
[1.6] More echo play (a telephone is involved): is the echo male or female? Rolling about on the grass.
[1.7] Macrobio with the Baroness Aspasia, sounding each other out; he is below her and she might take him on as a servant but not a spouse.
[1.8] Pacuvio and Fulvia (bathing beauty in pool); ballad of the barracuda and the mullet (luccia and triglia); he’s fallen in the water!
[1.9] The Count comes, thinking about Clarice; presentation of a rose.
[1.10] Asdrubale gives Fabrizio a letter (the touchstone) that he should bring back to him in full view of the company.
[1.11] Fabrizio soliloquizes about his employer (padrone); he has served him twelve years, and he has always shown interest in matrimony (it is not that he does not like women).
[1.12] Clarice, Asdrubale, Giocondo, Macrobio in a game of fiddlesticks. At the start Clarice mentions her twin brother to Giocondo, who confesses that Asdrubale is his friend and rival in regard to Clarice. Eventually the letter arrives and the Count feigns horror and despair; he retires in haste to his private rooms.
[1.13] The guests are not concerned. PACUVIO is with ASPASIA and FULVIA.
[1.14] MACROBIO the journalist speaks volubly about running a newspaper profitably, and along the way he demonstrates how to conduct an orchestra.
[1.15] The gardeners and cleaners express their concern about their master’s sudden withdrawal; they fear that a disaster is threatening him. Cavalier GIOCONDO (the Count’s faithful friend) engages CLARICE in conversation (he loves her), while MACROBIO prattles on about Count Orlando and the ”contraband” love of Medoro and Angelica (which is analogous to the present situation). The other two women return in bewilderment: they have heard that the Count has lost everything, and they feel they have had a lucky escape.
[1.16] Macrobio and Pacuvio announce the arrival of an exotic person of power, though they are in disagreement about his origin (Japan, Canada, a Turk [Turchesco] from Brittany [Bretagne], a German [Tedesco] born in Bevagna?!).
[1.17] The foreign potentate is Count Asdrubale himself, disguised as the man who has allegedly taken over his wealth, speaking in a frightfully funny foreign fashion. Most of the house guests fawn on him, though he demands that their possessions should be “sealed” to him.
[1.18] When the Count reappears, only Clarice and Giocondo care about their friend’s welfare; the others are not offering any support, either fondly or financially. Giocondo actually speaks about “contrary events” in our lives being a touchstone (but he does not know that the Count is testing him, and also the rest of the company, with a “paragon stone”).
[1.19] FABRIZIO, the secret agent in the touchstone plot, comes in brandishing a document that restores the Count’s wealth through the cancellation of his debts. All rejoice, except the faithless guests whose falseness has been revealed.
[2.1-2] Recrimination rather than repentance is the attitude of the shamed guests, and revenge is demanded by the women; they urge Pacuvio and Macrobio to challenge Count Asdrubale and Cavalier Giocondo to a duel. Cowardice prevents this. The Count invites them to a hunt in the nearby bush. Pacuvio can prove his bravery (or bravura) with a gun.
[2.3] Ironic conversation between the departing hunters and the poet Pacuvio. Here we have another of Rossini’s storms (Barber of Seville, William Tell); Pacuvio loses his gun and other possessions, including his precious poems.
[2.4] Giocondo ruminates over the tempest in his breast, caused by his unrequited love for Clarice.
[2.5] She comes to him and listens sympathetically to his protestations, and she says she could indeed love him if circumstances changed. Macrobio draws the Count’s attention to this, and in a jealous reaction to his misunderstanding of the situation, he accuses Clarice of fickleness.
[2.6] The hunters return with no prey, but they note that the Count has caught two blackbirds.