The characters in a typical Rossini opera buffa are superb at singing and ridiculous at flirting, wooing, duelling and staying out of trouble for any length of time, and so any production worth its salt plays up the nonsensical, allows exaggeration free play, indulges in caricature and in short allows us to laugh, all the while attending to the brilliant deployment of the human voice.

The cast of <i>Touchstone</i> © Scott Suchman
The cast of Touchstone
© Scott Suchman

E Loren Meeker’s fast-paced production of The Touchstone (La Pietra del paragone) at Wolf Trap was a delightful romp and a vehicle for showcasing some excellent emerging coloratura talent. The Touchstone was Rossini’s seventh opera and the first to be commissioned for La Scala in 1812. By then, the 20-year-old composer was already hitting a confident musical stride. To love Rossini means to embrace his particularly extravagant form of camp. Of course, one can’t talk about campness without alluding to Susan Sontag’s celebrated essay on the subject, and indeed, a good performance of Touchstone shows you how refreshingly un-Romantic it can be if everything, every single thing, is performed with a knowing sense of irony. Meeker knows all this and allows it free rein: she luxuriates in stylization, and then some. Case in point: Candice, when dressed up as her pretend “long lost” twin brother (we, of course, welcome every hoary old cliché in the high-camp aesthetic) was holding up a moustache before her face, and so were all her military subalterns (for all the world as if they were selfie-sticks). One doesn’t need to suspend disbelief in Rossini’s world. One can go on blithely disbelieving, and in a clever production, one is actually encouraged to do so: just sit back and enjoy the fantasy.

Kihun Yoon (Macrobio) and Richard Ollarsaba (Count Asdrubale) © Scott Suchman
Kihun Yoon (Macrobio) and Richard Ollarsaba (Count Asdrubale)
© Scott Suchman

The core feature of the production was the use of rotating columns, and this turned out to be a felicitous choice. The columns turned to reveal and to hide, to exclude and to include, both people and interiors/exteriors. The columns’ revolutions were mirrored in the choreography of the singers, especially in the ensembles, as the singers mincingly weaved their steps in and out. Come to think of it, what else do Rossini’s characters do but move around about each other, in shifting ensembles, duets, trios, quartets and quintets, happening upon unison only every so often, but more often discovering themselves at cross-purposes, telling the audience breathlessly about it from their own point of view, competing for attention which is perforce divided among them all? Rotation is indeed the order of the day in Rossini’s comic world – those constant turns of circumstance, knowledge and relation, in which the larger matters of love and honour and loyalty are enmeshed. Thus it was, in a low-budget production, that the use of columns was a definite score. Costuming and decor was a sort of fantasy Regency style with many a modern twist. The purist bowed before a funkier sense of aptness. So we accepted the three blingtastic female leads, and the white jeans for the preposterous Count-turned-foreign-creditor, mouthing excruciating Italian as he caressed his snake scarf and knocked off all the Count’s forfeited goods.

Shea Owens (Pacuvio) and Summer Hassan (Donna Fulvia) © Scott Suchman
Shea Owens (Pacuvio) and Summer Hassan (Donna Fulvia)
© Scott Suchman

Tonight’s performers fully communicated the exciting, intensely rhythmic Rossinian sound world. Kihun Yoon – notable here last year in L’Opera Seria – had thunderous vocal heft, immaculate articulation in the rapid passages, and acted the mud-raking journalist part with aplomb. Alasdair Kent delivered the high tenor note of the evening as Giacondo; beautiful, thrilling, and all that you hoped it would be in Act 2. Pacuvio the poet, in dandy stripe, with dyed orange forelock, was an amusing presence. I’d be tempted to say that the Baroness (Megan Mikailovna Samarin) and the Donna (Summer Hasson) were so over-egged as to be unbelievable, but the glory of Rossini camp is that you can’t really overplay it. That’s the point, isn’t it?

Zoie Reams’ warming contralto was a wonderful fit for Candice. It is a remarkably strong female part, and she played it with great authority and playfulness, revealing from the start her ability to bring forward the plot (and her trepidatious suitor) to a happy conclusion. We were never in doubt. Richard Ollarsaba as the brooding, emotionally-reticent Count gave us expressive and powerful singing throughout. The Rossini storms – the gathering of voices, forces, layers, machinations – were all well-marshalled and well-sung. The chorus scenes were compelling tours de force. One came to look forward to every time the motley crowd of men gathered on stage, men from all places on the social scale, from bewigged, liveried servants to idle, aristocratic hangers-on to rough and ready peasants. And with them all their socially-differentiated accoutrements – butler’s trays to beer bottles, kites and croquet mallets to spades. They sounded wonderful – ample volume, crisp rhythms, and they acted their varied parts to a man. In short, a highly enjoyable performance.