Rossini (La) Pietra del paragone
This is an utterly remarkable and fantastically enjoyable theatre-cum-video staging of Rossini's La pietra del paragone. Philippe Béziat, who has described the production as “the most original I have seen for a long time on the operatic stage”, created his own filmic realisation during live performances in Paris's Théâtre du Châtelet. His breathtakingly precise and witty filming adds a further dimension to the experience.
So how, precisely, does it work? Watched by three video cameras that stand centre-stage, the performers play out the action in a blue virtual reality space devoid of scenery. On the edge of the stage are a series of miniature sets, equipped with their own bespoke cameras. Behind and above the singers is a bank of six video screens onto which the images of the players and the set designs are mixed and superimposed. To take just one example (there are hundreds as the performance unfolds), a tennis ball placed by the lovelorn Giocondo on the miniaturised set appears on screen as large yellow garden seat on which he appears to perch to sing his aria.
This aspect of the production - Rossini meets Magritte - is the work of the celebrated video artist and specialist in comic burlesque, Pierrick Sorin. As in a Magritte painting, the interplay of image and reality blurs our perceptions sufficiently to make us wonder whether what we thought to be reality is merely a construction of the mind. This is itself pure Rossini. At some point in a Rossini commedia the characters will question their grasp of reality. In more abstract pieces such as Il turco in Italia or La pietra itself (its plot the equivalent of a feature-length version of Friends rewritten by a specialist in black comedy) the sense of the drama being played out in a world that is not entirely real is all the more marked.
Stage director Giorgio Barberio Corsetti directs a gem of production. The video set designs, which have a chic minimalist 1920s feel to them, are the work of Sorin and Corsetti in collaboration with Cristian Taraborrelli whose vivid modern-dress costuming works brilliantly both on the all-blue virtual reality set and in the vibrantly coloured video show above.
The singers, a richly talented ensemble of rising young stars, are superb, not only in their delivery of Rossini's text but in their mastery of the hugely difficult task of playing simultaneously to camera and to the audience. Film close-ups can be cruel to singers but they turn this to their advantage, building facial movements into a larger ensemble of gesture and mime. Jean-Christophe Spinosi's conducting of his period band Ensemble Matheus is a tour de force, funny in its own right. Not since Jacek Kaspszyk lit the blue touch-paper beneath Il Signor Bruschino have I heard Rossini conducting of such point, colour, vibrancy and drive.
The DVD comes in a stylishly produced 100-page hardback rich in background information, including two superb essays by Rossini scholar Damien Colas. The show runs for two hours 40 minutes but since its ingenuity appears to know no bounds there are no longueurs. In the annals of Rossini performance, this is an important and entertaining landmark creation.