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Gioachino ROSSINI (1792-1868)
La gazza ladra (The Thieving Magpie) - melodramma in two acts (1817)
Fabrizio, a rich farmer - Paola Bordogna (bass); Lucia, his wife - Kleopatra Papatheologou (mezzo); Gianetto, Fabrizio’s son, a soldier in love with Ninetta - Dmitry Korchak (tenor); Ninetta, a servant in Fabrizio’s house - Mariola Canterero (soprano); Fernando, Ninetta’s father, a soldier - Alex Esposito (baritone); Il Podesta, the Mayor who lusts after Ninetta - Michele Pertusi (bass); Pippo, a young peasant employed by Fabrizzio and infatuated by Ninetta - Manuela Custer (mezzo); Isacco, a pedlar - Stefan Cifolelli (tenor); Antonio, a gaoler - Cosimo Panozzo (tenor)
Prague Chamber Choir; Orchestra Haydn Di Bolzano e Trento/Lu Jia rec. live, Rossini Opera Festival, Pesaro, Italy, 2007 Director: Damiano Michieletto; Set designer: Paolo Fantin; Costume Designer: Carla Teti; Video Director: Tiziano Mancini
Recorded in High Definition. dts digital surround sound, Dolby, PCM 2.0. Vision 16:9 Colour. NTSC
Subtitles in Italian (original language), English, German, French, Spanish.
Notes and synopsis in Italian, English, German, French
DYNAMIC 33567
[2DVDs: 201:00]

 

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Tancredi
and L’Italiana in Algeri, Rossini’s tenth and eleventh operas, both premiered in Venice, launched the composer on an unstoppable career. They saw him become the most prestigious opera composer of his time. The formidable impresario Domenico Barbaja summoned Rossini to Naples and offered him the position of musical director of the city’s two Royal Theatres, the San Carlo and Fondo. Barbaja’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 also 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 limits of this contract and in the first two years composed no fewer than five operas for other venues, including four for Rome.

Only three weeks after the premiere of La Cenerentola at Teatro Valle, Rome, on 25 January 1817, Rossini went to fill yet another new commission. This was for La Scala, Milan who, like Naples, also boasted a professional orchestra. Here he was given the libretto of La gazza ladra (The Thieving Magpie). It was to be his twenty-first opera and was premiered to great enthusiasm on 31 May 1817. It 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 his 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 audio recordings of La gazza ladra have, for some time, been limited to a live performance of the 1989 Pesaro Festival production 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. On DVD the only other version available originates from a Michael Hempe production from Cologne in 1987 featuring Ileana Cotrubas as Ninetta. Despite her appealing stage presence and convincing acting she cannot disguise her age and the effect of heavier roles in large theatres (see review).

The plot of La gazza ladra is well known and simple in outline. The libretto is full of minor 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 such as 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. The Cologne production benefited from the direct production style of Michael Hempe aided by the natural stage designs and period costumes. For this new production at Pesaro in 2008, the Rossini Foundation appointed the avant-garde Damiano Michieletto to direct. He is full of ideas and so is his set designer Paolo Fantin. During the overture a young girl is seen preparing for bed. As she falls asleep it appears she has a nightmare and dreams she is a magpie. A large drape descends which she converts into a sling and is carried aloft perched like an acrobat. Thereafter she flitters around the stage doing the magpie’s business. It would have been a better idea if the hoops of her modern dress top had been black and white with a touch of blue rather than red and white. At the conclusion of the overture this magpie girl sets a series of large candle tubes into a matrix frame. This is the model for the set with large versions of the tubes descending in a vertical position to comprise the act one set in a shoebox stage. At the end of the first act, as Ninetta is accused and finds herself in dire trouble, the tubes become horizontal, pointing towards the audience and smoking like artillery guns.

All the cast is in modern dress, and to add to the fear of totalitarian-type justice the Podesta looks as if he is an uber-Scarpia escaped from a modern dress production of Tosca. He is flanked by armalite- or kalashnikov-toting henchmen! By the time of Podesta’s entrance, and his attempts to try and force his attentions on an unwilling Ninetta, the general strength of the singing was clearly evident. As Ninetta the rather buxom Mariola Canterero sings with a full tone, particularly in the lower registers, but lacks something of an easy and flexible top. Dmitry Korchak as Gianetto seems yet another welcome addition to the list of lyric tenors. He sings strongly and with good expression and diction. Among the lower male voices the strengths of Alex Esposito as Fernando in particular, and Paola Bordogna as Fabrizio, were rather overshadowed by the acting and singing of Michele Pertusi as a saturnine Podesta, his lean bass having an appropriate cruel bite to it. Kleopatra Papatheologou sings expressively and with good variety of colour as Lucia, but looks rather too young. Manuela Custer’s superbly acted and sung portrayal of Pippo, who has to carry the burden of unrequited love of Ninetta as well as getting her innocence proved, is a world class portrayal in all respects. She sings with a wide variety of tonal colour, verbal nuance and excellent expression and legato as well as acting the role to perfection.

Act two opens with the magpie standing in a rainstorm and becoming increasingly bedraggled. The water was retained several centimetres deep on the stage throughout the act. Wet and bedraggled was the lot of several of the singers as they were put into situations of having to wallow in it! I have not worked out what this water-play was supposed to represent. Maybe it was significant that the Podesta did not have to crawl in it. Meanwhile the large tubes, stacked horizontally, represent Ninetta’s gaol. By now she is in a sackcloth shift and bare-footed; appropriate as she is paddling in the onstage water throughout the act. Careful camera work causes the removal of the tubes to be a mystery whilst an upper gantry is flown from which the judges enter, remain dry, and pass their sentence on Ninetta. It later serves as the bell tower where the missing goods are discovered, with loss of dramatic effect. The earlier dénouement of the magpie stealing Pippo’s sparkling silver coin goes for nothing. The entrance of Lucia with her long elegant skirt swishing through the water detracts from the powerful emotion of her words (Disc 2 Ch 6). Somehow, Kleopatra Papatheologou’s singing maintains the dignity, drama and expression of the words although it is, perhaps, one of the examples when some of the cast seem lost as to what they are doing and why. I specifically exempt Alex Esposito from any criticism in this respect. He acts with conviction whilst kneeling, or worse, in the water whilst singing with power and variety of expression (Disc 2 Ch. 4). The singers and conductor are well received at the curtain-calls, as doubtless would Rossini have been for the quality of his music.

As I watched this production I thought of a perhaps apocryphal story of Rossini. When accosted by a friend in the street and asked if he had enjoyed the performance of his opera the night before, he is reputed to have replied along the lines of yes, at least those parts of it he recognised as having written. This comment refers to the habit of singers of the day bringing and performing their own elaborate vocal decorations and even interpolating arias by other composers to better show off their skills. In those days singers were in charge, now it is the director who is in the driving seat. If Rossini had seen this production, he would have recognised his music, given in full in the Critical Edition by Alberto Zedda, but if he saw it without sound he would never relate it to his own work. The scholar Philip Gossett, who along with Zedda has been instrumental in the creation of the Pesaro Rossini Foundation, as well as being artistic advisor and editor of the Rossini Critical Edition, parted company with the Foundation a few years ago on the basis of disagreements over artistic policy. Whilst not a purist in respect of updating, I suspect the kind of producer concept that this production exemplifies may have had an influence on his parting. The credits indicate a connection with Helsinki. If this production is to transfer there, let singers beware. I suspect paddling in Finnish cold water will produce more cases of rheumatics than might have been the case at Pesaro where the August temperatures often climb into the thirties Celsius and a cooling paddle might have been welcomed!

The booklet synopsis could gainfully be Chapter-related, particularly as there are errors in who is singing as noted in the Chapter list. The number of Chapter divisions is too small in number, at sixteen, for over three hours of music with many distinct scenes, arias, duets and ensembles. The rival Arthaus Music issue referred to has fifty-seven.

Robert J Farr


 


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