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Gioachino ROSSINI (1792-1868)
La gazza ladra (The Thieving Magpie) - melodramma in two acts (1817)
Fabrizio, a rich farmer - Carlos Feller (bass); Lucia, his wife - Nucci Condò (alto); Gianetto, Fabrizio’s son, a soldier in love with Ninetta - David Kuebler (ten); Ninetta, a servant in Fabrizio’s house - Ileana Cotrubas (sop); Fernando, Ninetta’s father, a soldier - Brent Ellis (bar); Il Podesta, the Mayor who lusts after Ninetta - Alberto Rinaldi (bass); Pippo, a young peasant employed by Fabrizzio and infatuated by Ninetta - Elena Zilio (mezzo); Isacco, a pedlar - Erlingur Vigfusson (ten); Antonio, a gaoler - Eberhard Katz (ten)
Chorus of the Cologne Opera. Gürzenich Orchestra/Bruno Bartoletti
rec. 1987
Production directed by Michael Hempe. Set and costume designed by Mauro Pagano
Directed for television by José Montes Baquer
Picture format 4:3. Recorded in PCM stereo. Subtitle languages: English, German, French, Spanish, Italian (original language). Notes, synopsis and cast profiles in English, German, French
ARTHAUS MUSIK 102203 [182:00]

Tancredi and L’Italiana in Algeri, premiered in Venice, launched Rossini on an unstoppable career that saw him become the most prestigious opera composer of his time. The formidable impresario Domenico Barbaja saw Rossini as pre-eminent among his contemporaries. He summoned Rossini to Naples and offered him the position of music director of the city’s two Royal Theatres, the San Carlo and Fondo. Barbarja’s proposals appealed to Rossini for several reasons. Not only was his annual fee generous and guaranteed, but also the San Carlo had a professional orchestra, unlike the theatres of Venice and Rome. The composer saw this as a considerable advantage as he aspired to push the boundaries of his opera composition in more adventurous directions. Under the terms of the contract, Rossini was to provide two operas each year for Naples whilst being permitted to compose occasional works for other cities. The composer tended to test the boundaries of this contract and in the first two years composed no fewer than five operas for other venues, including four for Rome.
Three weeks after the premiere of La Cenerentola at Teatro Valle, Rome, on 25 January 1817, Rossini went to fill another new commission for La Scala, Milan who also boasted a professional orchestra. Here he was given the libretto of his 21st opera La gazza ladra (The Thieving Magpie). It was premiered to great enthusiasm on 31 May 1817 and quickly spread across Europe reaching England in 1821 and America six years later. With its opening drum-rolls the overture made appropriate demands on the orchestra of La Scala and nowadays features as a concert piece in its own right. La gazza ladra is significantly longer than any of Rossini’s previous operas. Whilst it is termed a melodrama it really belongs, like Torvaldo e Dorliska, (see review) to the genre of semi-serious opera. These works are so-called because the basic pattern of the plot involves the principal character, without being guilty of any wrong, falling into mortal danger before being rescued at the last moment. Available recordings of La gazza ladra have, for some time, been limited to an audio-only version of a live performance at the Pesaro Festival in 1989 conducted by Gianluigi Gelmetti (Sony 45850) and an extended highlight version in English from Chandos largely derived from a production first staged by Opera North.
The plot of La gazza ladra is well known and simple in outline. The libretto is full of minor, even diversionary, details that serve to provide situations and set-pieces for the main soloists. Away from the San Carlo at Naples, with its roster of the dramatic coloratura singers Isobel Colbran, Giovanni David and Andrea Nozzari to cater for, Rossini was able to extend his musical creativity on the basis of a more mainstream operatic cast as here. Add the direct production style of Michael Hempe, aided by the natural stage designs and period costumes of Mauro Pagano and there is the basis for a really good show. The main stage setting of act 1 is the courtyard of Fabrizio’s home where Ninetta is employed. With its backdrop of hills it is wholly natural. The gaol of act 2, to which Ninetta has been consigned to await trial, the court where she is tried, the village square where she passes on the way to execution and the stolen silver found in the magpie’s nest in the nearby church tower, are all realistically and faithfully represented. Most importantly, the theft of Ninetta’s silver cross (Ch.52), which she had given to Pippo as she awaited her fate in gaol, is realistically portrayed, as are the bird’s vocal interjections.
The burden of the singing in La gazza ladra is carried by the role of Ninetta sung by Ileana Cotrubas. By the time of this performance she had moved considerably from her earlier fach of the lighter lyric soprano roles to take on the likes of Verdi’s Elisabetta in Don Carlo. She always had an appealing stage presence and except for the odd close-up the watcher would not guess she was in her 47th year so well does she portray the young Ninetta, singing off and reacting to her colleagues. Vocally her voice is no longer the young light lyric flexible instrument of her Pamina at Salzburg or Violetta for Kleiber on the admired DG recording. She has moments of heavy tone and difficulty in sustaining the legato line, but they are relatively few and do not detract from an overall admirable assumption. As her father Fernando, Brent Ellis is another whose voice has risen to heavier roles. I heard him as a lyric Germont père and a dramatic Scarpia. With a dark-hued baritone he sings strongly and fully conveys vocally and via his acting the agony of Ninetta’s father. He is particularly good as Fernando discovers Ninetta has been accused of theft (Chs.44-45) where he makes some effort at decoration and in the court scene when Fernando appears and berates the assembly (Ch.51). The other male voices are more experienced Rossini singers and make varying efforts in respect of decoration. Alberto Rinaldi’s mayor sings and acts the evil scheming Il Podesta as though he would make a fine Pizarro in Fidelio, with strong biting tone (Chs. 21-23). Neither his acting, the story itself, nor the production avoids Il Podesta’s carnality towards Ninetta. It is a good job for modesty that the gaoler interrupts him after his demanding just one kiss, when after removing his coat he attempts to have his way with her (Ch.37-38). He has more Rossini style in his singing than Ellis, but he too does tend to over-sing and force his tone to give a little unsteadiness and vocal spread. Nonetheless his is an excellently acted portrayal. So too is that of Carlos Feller as Ninetta’s benevolent, somewhat bumbling but humane employer Fabrizio. Born in Buenos Aires, Feller made his career in Cologne and a reputation in buffo roles. Aided by Hempe’s direction his portrayal of the concerned and then bemused Fabrizio cannot be faulted and he can stand comparison with more famous native Italian Rossini buffos. As Gianetto, Ninetta’s intended on his return from soldiering, David Kuebler is another singer well used to the Rossini idiom. Like Rinaldi he appears in Hempe’s productions of La Cambiale Di Matrimonio, La Scala Di Sieta and Il Signor Bruschino at the Schwetzingen Festival in 1989 and 1990. These performances of Rossini’s early farsi have appeared on DVD on the Euroarts label. David Kuebler is physically tall and handsome. His tallness does cause some necessity for stoop and bending of the knees when clasping the relatively small Ileana Cotrubas to him. He sings with light-toned vocal elegance and portrays the joys and agonies of the role in his acting and facial expression. The role is a little short-changed in terms of solos (Ch.13) and he makes the best of his duet with Ninetta (Ch.34) when both sing poignantly.
Lucia, Fabrizzio’s wife, and the travesti role of Pippo, the adolescent infatuated with Ninetta are the other two female principals. As Lucia, Nucci Condò’s low mezzo and matronly appearance are ideal. She starts off as a bit of a baddy being somewhat hard on Ninetta, but then has pangs of conscience as the poor girl is condemned and passes to execution. When all ends well she welcomes Ninetta as husband for her son. The role is not a big sing but she must, and does look, act and characterise the part in her singing throughout. The appearance and acting of Pippo is also good casting. Elena Zilio plays the agile young lad to perfection with her lightish mezzo being, like her acting and movements, realistic and expressive. The Isacco of Erlingur Vigfusson and sympathetic gaoler of Eberhard Katz are both well acted and sung. Conductor Bruno Bartoletti moves the drama along whilst having respect for the needs of the singers, the evolving drama and Rossini’s keenly crafted music.
The single disc is in simple stereo and 4:3 format with the action divided into 58 chapters. The booklet has a full chapter listing with participants shown for each. There is also a synopsis and, particularly welcome, artist profiles with the latter two in German and French as well as English. There are interruptions in the performance for applause but these are not excessive or extensive except at the conclusion when the only curtain-calls are shown with the credits (Ch.59).
Robert J Farr


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