Rossini’s early opera “The Touchstone” (“La pietra del paragone”) is a cream puff of an opera, with a trumped-up plot acting as a scaffolding for some delightful music. Much to the credit of the Wolf Trap Opera and E. Loren Meeker, the stage director, the company’s new production, which opened Friday at the Wolf Trap Barns, managed almost to conceal the flimsiness of the plot through a combination of humor and strong performances.
From a 21st-century perspective, 19th-century opera is a contrivance in any case; even some of the more successful ones seem stilted when seen through modern eyes. This one wreaks several variations on the theme of the wealthy aristocrat testing the love of his sweethearts, which seemed an entirely superfluous activity in this production in any case. The count Asdrubale (Richard Ollarsaba, who did well in “L’Opera Seria” here last year, evoking a young Ruggero Raimondi in looks and manner, with a meltingly smooth bass-baritone) and the marquess Clarice (Zoie Reams, with a thick, warm mezzo-soprano and clean coloratura) were clearly the people of most substance onstage. They were supported by their friend Giocondo, the tenor Alasdair Kent, who offered some remarkable old-style vocal pyrotechnics in the form of a device called messa di voce, which involves swelling a note from gentle near-silence to full-throated trumpeting.
Asdrubale isn’t sure whether people love him for his money, and he doesn’t trust anyone. Meeker’s madcap production — with Erhard Rom’s simple but effective sets of rotating wall units able to conceal a character when necessary, painted matte green on one side and with tableaux of period painting on the other — helped make this scenario antic rather than merely tiresome. There are two silly female figures (Summer Hassan, as Fulvia, had a strong, slightly edgy soprano) and two foolish men, one a poet (the baritone Shea Owens was an audience favorite) whose aria “Missipipi, pipi, pipi” is one of the familiar features of this generally little-known opera) and one a journalist and thus, obviously, a villain (Kihun Yoon is a baritone with a powerful dark voice of remarkable size, working visibly and commendably hard on finesse and control in more quiet passages). There is also an obligatory hunt/storm scene with music that foreshadows Rossini’s subsequent effort in “The Barber of Seville,” which in Meeker’s staging got belly laughs from the audience as animals and people crossed the stage in exaggerated slapstick poses.
Made up of artists from the company’s studio program, aspiring soloists all, the chorus was more vivid, present and loud than most opera choruses, which became another endearing feature in a small-scale production with outsized flair. And the whole thing was given added buoyancy by the conducting of Antony Walker, the artistic director of Washington Concert Opera and a known bel canto specialist. You couldn’t see him in the Wolf Trap pit, but you could practically feel him bouncing on his feet.
There are two more performances on Wednesday and Saturday.