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Rossini (1792-1868) - Overture: The Thieving Magpie

When do you write the overture to your opera? The obvious answer is, “When the inspiration takes you”. When might that be? According to Rossini, you should “wait until the evening before the opening night”, because “nothing primes inspiration more than necessity”. That’s fine as far as it goes, especially if you’re not bothered by anxiously hovering copyists or impervious to the incessant pocket-watch tapping of increasingly panicky impresarios. Rossini wasn’t (bothered, that is), although it didn’t escape his notice that the impresarios with whom he worked tended to be bald by the age of thirty. 

But what if you fail to deliver the goods? Skilled craftsman that he was, Rossini managed to steer clear of that particular disaster. After all, he was well aware that, with his raw materials already safely “in the can”, his standard (but indefinitely flexible) formula would ensure a perfect product every time. Nevertheless he knew the risks: “I wrote the overture to The Thieving Magpie on the day of its opening, in the theatre itself where I was imprisoned by the director and under the surveillance of four [presumably ‘burly’] stage hands who were instructed to throw my original text through the window, page by page, to the copyists waiting below . . . In default of pages, they were ordered to throw me out of the window”. 

This drastic measure, as ever, wasn’t necessary. Indeed, the nonchalant Rossini even tossed in a novel touch which must have immediately diverted the first-night audience, in Milan on 31 May 1817, from its accustomed pre-performance gossiping. To gauge the real impact of two snare-drums calling to one another across the full width of the orchestra we need to remember that the opera orchestra was tucked out of sight in the pit. Nor did Rossini let them return to their chatter, the snare-drums launching a particularly sonorous “Pomp and Circumstance March”. The ensuing Rossinian “rondo à la pot-pourri” positively fizzes with vibrant colour, rhythmic vitality, and some of the most exciting “Rossini crescendi” that ever dripped from his fertile pen. Nor are the two snare drums forgotten: they have the opportunity to indulge in some dollops of deliciously delicate interplay. 

Oh - I nearly forgot: the story of the opera concerns a young maidservant who, accused of stealing a silver spoon, is sentenced to death for her crime (a bit drastic, perhaps, but then this is opera). At the eleventh hour, the real culprit is found to be a magpie. The title is a bit of a giveaway, to say the least, but luckily for us Rossini’s music is far more imaginative than that!

© Paul Serotsky
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