Rossini’s Pietra del Paragone at Paris Châtelet

I have always resisted the use of video and other projections in theatrical productions. Typically they are a distraction from the action on stage, or coordinate insufficiently with its physicality, or add too little to it. But the current presentation of Rossini’s comic opera La Pietra del Paragone at the Châtelet theatre at Paris was a revelation. The idea, devised by the team of Giorgio Barberio Corsetti and Pierrick Sorin, of combining action at the front of a bare stage with a dual image of it on a screen above and behind was highly effective; that image involved also the projection of a toy town setting created by a camera viewing a small model at the side of the stage. Spectators could therefore see the performers not only physically and in the abstract but also televised against a background of, for example, an elegant house interior or a wooded garden. The device meant that the action could, as it were, be suspended in terms of time and space and the drama took on a sharper focus as a result of the “virtual” setting. It was also particularly well suited to the “artificiality” of Rossini’s musical idiom: the florid coloratura arias, and the sizzling interchange of voices in the ensembles.

But the ingenuity of the production did not end there. The televised projections filtered out anything in a bright blue colour. In consequence props painted blue and mime artists dressed entirely in blue while visible on the stage could not be seen in the projections. This led to some terrific gags, such as pancakes tossed up by the cook seemingly floating in the air (because held there by an artist in blue). Occasionally humour of this kind was overdone because it distracted from the music, but at other times it was aesthetically pleasing, as when the tenor and mezzo, engaged in a game of tennis to explore the possibility of love between them, stroke a ball (carried by another blue mime artist) from racquet to racquet.

One should not ignore the musical side of the performance which, under the direction of Jean-Christophe Spinosi, was of a high quality. The singers, most of them Italian and most of them young, performed with energy and enthusiasm; and were entirely at home with Rossini’s musical language. Altogether, a refreshing and bold operatic evening which ended on a note of nostalgia as all joined in a Rossinian tribute to the recently deceased Claudio Abbado. For me, it had a personal poignancy, as Abbado had conducted my first great experience of Rossini: La Cenerentola at Covent Garden in 1976.