Considering that Rossini's opera buffa "La pietra del paragone" (The Touchstone) is hardly ever staged and that its title is not even known through its overture, like "La scala di seta" or "La gazza ladra," music lovers can be forgiven for being in the dark about this sparklingly luminous work. One of Rossini's first operas, it was written for Milan's La Scala and premiered there in 1812. It was a resounding success - in spite of its standard libretto filled with disguises, mistaken identities and trials of love and loyalty. But it boasts a splendidly varied orchestral writing, which includes dramatic hunt and storm scenes, and betrays a love of language and wordplay which presages Rossini's later works. For this alone, it deserves an above-average treatment.
The plot is almost as traditional as the music, but one difference makes this Convitato di Pietra unusually interesting and unique: Don Giovanni's servant is not Leporello but the archetype of the Neapolitan tradition of the Commedia dell'Arte, Pulcinella. It is fascinating to consider these two characters in tandem: both have a huge stage tradition behind them, yet could not be more different from each other. Pulcinella is extraordinarily comic, cunning and concrete, giving the librettist the opportunity to operate both inside and outside the plot, a device typical of the Commedia dell'Arte whereby the leading characters continually come out of the story to confide in the audience, then re-enter the plot. The character of Don Giovanni yields in importance to Pulcinella to such an extent that it is the latter who is truly the leading light of the opera.