La pietra del paragone, melodramma giocoso in two acts to a libretto by Luigi Romanelli, was first performed at Teatro alla Scala, Milan, on 27th September 1812.
The singers in the first performances were Maria Marcolini (Clarice), Carolina Zerbini (Aspasia), Orsola Fei (Fulvia), Filippo Galli (Asdrubale), Claudio Bonoli (Giocondo), Antonio Parlamagni (Macrobio), Pietro Vasoli (Pacuvio), Paolo Rossignoli (Fabrizio).
A number of guests have gathered in the gardens of the villa of Count Asdrubale, a wise and generous nobleman who treats ladies with respect but who does not seem to be in any hurry to get married. The baroness Aspasia, the marchesa Clarice and Donna Fulvia would all like to catch him. Among the guests, the absurd poet Pacuvio tries to recite his latest effort, but he is snubbed by everyone except Donna Fulvia, who would like him to help her in her plans to conquer the Count. Meanwhile, two other quarrelsome guests arrive: the self-styled journalist Macrobio and the cavalier Giocondo, who is also a poet; the two of them get into an argument as to which of the ladies stands the best chance of making good and winning the Count’s hand. Macrobio favours the marchesa Clarice, to the great distress of Giocondo, who is secretly in love with the young lady himself. Left alone, Clarice thinks over the Count’s apparent insensibility to love, but then she is surprised by an echo that repeats her last words. Strange echo, indeed, seeing that it sings in the Count’s own voice. In order to make sure of his identity, Clarice hides among the trees. Believing himself alone, the Count asks himself whether is is not time he was married. But, knowing how deceiving woman can be, how can he tell which of the three widows who are pursuing him is doing it out of love, and which out of interest? Clarice joins him and asks him: «Is the echo male or female? Does it tell the truth or does it lie?». The Count pretends to be above it all, but secretly he is perturbed, because his heart inclines towards Clarice. Meanwhile the other two ladies carry on scheming: Aspasia pretends to favour Macrobio’s courtship, hoping to make the Count jealous, and Donna Fulvia plans to present him with a rose accompanied by a poem that she has commissioned from Pacuvio. He, however, first inflicts on her another poetic miscarriage of his in «lingua patetica e burlesca» (language both pathetic and burlesque). Only when he has finished showing off does the presentation of the rose take place, accompanied by a poem «after Petrarch», accepted ironically by the Count, who, at this point, decides to apply a «touchstone», that is, to put in motion a secret plan to reveal the true nature of the feelings of the three ladies aspiring to his hand. With the help of his butler, Fabrizio, he dresses up as an African, and Fabrizio, at the due time, has to give him a letter that has been prepared beforehand.
In rooms adjoining the garden, Giocondo comforts Clarice, who is recalling the loss, seven years before, of her twin brother. The arrival of the Count and Macrobio leads to an argument about journalists who, according to Asdrubale, never explain their own opinions. But according to Clarice, the three men present all have a similar failing: they do not explain their own actions. Whilst they are arguing, Fabrizio comes on with a letter for the Count who, after he has read it, goes off in a very obviously distressed frame of mind. Meanwhile Fulvia asks herself why Asdrubale has reacted so strangely to Pacuvio’s poem. Aspasia, for her part, goes to look for Macrobio. When the four of them meet up, the two ladies set off arguing, whilst Macrobio is hard put to it to refuse Pacuvio’s request to print his poem in the newspaper: in fact, everyone would like to see his name in the paper – ballerinas, singers, virtuosi of every kind.
Workmen in the garden comment on the strange behaviour of the Count, who has withdrawn, depressed, into his room. While Giocondo tries once more to gain Clarice’s attention, attracting all the irony of Macrobio, who quotes Angelica and Medoro, Aspasia and Fulvia come on with a sensational announcement: the Count has lost all his possessions, for a foreign merchant has arrived claiming the immediate payment of a bill of exchange for six million. The merchant (who is none other than the Count himself, dressed up) arrives, and since Fabrizio declares that he cannot find any receipt of payment, they must proceed to seal up everything belonging to the Count.
In an inner courtyard, Asdrubale, wearing his own clothes again, asks his friends to help him now that he is penniless; Clarice, feeling for him in his misfortunes, offers him her heart and her hand, whilst Giocondo offers him hospitality. All the others, on the other hand, are ready to cast him off. Now, however, Fabrizio comes triumphantly back on with the receipt of payment. The debt is annulled and the act ends with the joy of Clarice and Giocondo and the surprise and consternation of the others.
In the inner courtyard reactions to what has happened are mixed. Aspasia and Fulvia consider that they have been deliberately exposed to mortification and are meditating revenge. Macrobio and Pacuvio, on the other hand, try to excuse themselves to the Count, who answers them sarcastically, whereas Giocondo openly expresses his scorn for them all, especially for the two men, each of whom had promised his lady to challenge the Count and Giocondo himself to a duel. Aside, Pacuvio boasts to Fulvia that, in fact, he has challenged Giocondo, fought him, and won, but has spared his life. This tale is, naturally, an invention, and to avoid being exposed as a liar, Pacuvio says that he has promised Giocondo never to speak about it, to avoid shaming him. After inviting everyone to the hunt, the Count goes off. Meanwhile Aspasia, having heard about Giocondo’s socalled duel, and not wanting to miss her share of the fun, urges Macrobio to challenge the Count.
In the woods the chorus of huntsmen make fun of Pacuvio, who does not know what to do with his rifle. A storm breaks and the poet, trying to save at least his writings, gets more and more terrified. Giocondo comes on, sadly imagining Clarice in the arms of the Count. But now Clarice herself comes on, inviting him to renounce any ideas of love in favour of friendship. However, she makes him a promise: if one day her feelings change, then she will choose him. While the two of them are talking, they are seen by Macrobio, Aspasia and the Count himself, who, believing that he has been betrayed, inveighs against the lady’s faithlessness.
Inside the villa Donna Fulvia is still struggling with Pacuvio’s poetic wonders. When the two of them go away, Giocondo comes in and tries to convince the Count of Clarice’s innocence, urging him to make up his mind to marry her. But Asdrubale still hesitates to undertake such a responsibility as marriage. For now, better to amuse himself with the challenge that Macrobio has promised him. They are about to go off when Clarice comes in, happy because she has received a letter from her twin brother, Lucindo (the two of them are as like as two peas), announcing his return to town. The Count unwittingly assists the lady’s plan by immediately inviting her brother to join them at his villa. [Pacuvio also shows a letter announcing the arrival of the celebrated Maestro Petecchia. Clarice takes advantage of this to recite a sonnet of Giocondo’s, relating a dream in which a gang of jealous musicians fling themselves upon Cimarosa’s corpse to tear it to pieces]1. Meanwhile Donna Fulvia is sill bothering Pacuvio, who is afraid that she might have divulged the secret of his duel, a secret that might end up in Macrobio’s newspaper. But Donna Fulvia is satisfied: if the insult was public, so too must be the punishment. Meanwhile the time has arrived for the other two duels. Macrobio is terrified when Giocondo offers him a pistol and challenges him, intending to wash away the shame of being falsely accused in the newspaper of having been challenged and defeated, and of being branded as a coward. While Macrobio is still worrying about how he can slither out of this first challenge, the Count arrives with two servants, bearing two swords. Since Macrobio has not found the courage to challenge him, the Count himself will challenge Macrobio. Giocondo will not yield the precedence to the Count, and consequently a first duel will take place between the Count and Giocondo, the winner of which will then fight Macrobio. The latter has scarcely had time to sigh with relief when the other two, intent upon amusing themselves at his expense, give up all idea of this first duel before it has begun. The Count has magnanimously changed his mind, deciding that Giocondo, as his guest, must be given precedence. At this point the terrified Macrobio begs them for a way out. There is one: all he has to do is proclaim himself a venal poltroon, a ridiculous ladies’ man and, above all, a prize dunce, whether in writing prose or verse. The poor journalist has no choice but to accept all these choice epithets.
Now we find ourselves in the village where Pacuvio is hotly pursued by a furious Donna Fulvia, who has discovered that that the famous duel that the poet boasted of winning had, in fact, never taken place. Aspasia, on her part, asks Macrobio how his duel turned out. Fabrizio interrupts them announcing the arrival of Lucindo, Clarice’s twin brother (who is, in fact, Clarice herself dressed up as an army captain, intending in this disguise to try out a touchstone of her own), who enters, accompanied by soldiers, and after addressing the troops “he” enters the count’s house with his followers. In the square Pacuvio, Macrobio, Aspasia and Donna Fulvia comment in their different ways upon the resemblance between the twins: the two ladies, finding Lucindo much more handsome than his sister, who, they say, scarcely resembles him at all, decide that he would be well worth paying court to. They lose no time in following him into the count’s house, where the captain is telling Asdrubale that he will not be able to see his sister any more and that she, moreover, will be given in marriage to Giocondo. Giocondo, however, in the name of friendship, refuses to accept this offer. Consequently Lucindo will carry Clarice off to distant parts and the Count will not see her again. Hearing this, Asdrubale, finally aware of the strength of his love, falls a prey to despair and withdraws, invoking death, followed by Giocondo. Shortly afterwards Fabrizio comes on again bearing a document written by the Count, who asks Lucindo to sign it on Clarice’s behalf. Lucindo signs it, and shortly afterwards comes back in with the Count, who has recognized Clarice’s handwriting in “Lucindo’s” signature, and is convinced that she cannot be very far away. Fabrizio denies this, but the Count directly questions Lucindo, who, having asked and obtained pardon for the stratagem employed and also asked, on behalf of his sister, for Asdrubale’s hand, amazes everyone by revealing his identity: «Lucindo never came back, I am Clarice» . The disguise, therefore, has merely been a stratagem inspired by love. Aspasia and Fulvia remain humiliated, like Macrobio and Pacuvio, but console themselves with the thought of the wedding party. Amid the universal joy at the marriage announcement, the Count has to admit that, if in the past he had shown scant attention to the ladies, now he has finally learned to respect them.