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Gioachino ROSSINI (1792–1868)
The Thieving Magpie - Melodrama in two acts - (1817)
Fabrizio Vingradito, a rich farmer…Jeremy White (bass)
Lucia, his wife…Susan Bickley (mezzo-soprano)
Giannetto, their son, a soldier…Barry Banks (tenor)
Ninetta, a servant in their house…Majella Cullagh (soprano)
Fernando Villabella, Ninetta’s father, a soldier…Russell Smythe (baritone)
Gottardo, the village mayor…Christopher Purves (baritone)
Pippo, a young peasant in Fabrizio’s service…Nerys Jones (mezzo-soprano)
Isaaco, a pedlar…John Graham-Hall (tenor)
With Stuart Kale, Toby Stafford-Allen, Nicholas Garrett, Darren Jeffery, Philip Tebb, Daniel Slater and Prunella Scales
Geoffrey Mitchell Choir
Philharmonia Orchestra/David Parry
Recorded at Blackheath Halls, London: 21-23, 27-28 September 2002. DDD
CHANDOS OPERA IN ENGLISH CHAN 3097 (2) [2CDs: 79.58+71.04]

This is a seriously good recording. Devotees of Opera in English will already have discovered this because they will have been unable to resist the temptation to purchase. Thereby they will have found themselves in that somewhat unusual operatic genre: the semi-seria - of which this is an almost perfect example. Here are comic elements intermingled with the dramatic, darker side of life. Not everyone lives happily ever after.

Not everyone lives happily now: blinkered opera-language purists will have read ‘Rossini’ and ‘Opera in English’ and no more. Not for them the language of the audience. Original libretto and composition fanatics will not get much further either: this production is based on the 2002 Garsington production with omitted arias and ‘radically cut’ (David Parry’s words) recitative. ‘Original’ depends on which version you refer to: Rossini’s original of 1817 or the revivals at Pesaro and Naples for which he wrote additional music. Stop worrying. Three and a quarter-hours have been cut to two and a half. And in that time you will listen to a taut compelling version which, whilst not perfect, I defy you not to enjoy.

Many of Rossini’s contemporary critics complained of "noisy instruments" – as pointed out by Richard Osborne in his usually interesting and learned introductory notes in the accompanying booklet. I believe the complaint was a misunderstanding of Rossini and in particular his love of sound, instrumental or vocal and the juxtaposition of each to the other.

On this recording we have some excellent examples; some where the orchestra adopts a superbly controlled supportive role; for example the duet at the beginning of Act II. Conversely it attempts to take over once or twice seemingly carried away in the euphoria of splendid sound: the opening trio before Ninetta’s cavatina is an example.

I did wonder from time to time whether David Parry had overlooked our inability to follow visually the singers on stage when recording the CD as opposed to the live Garsington performance. Just occasionally he allows the singers to be submerged in "noisy instruments". It is a small but irritating point when Chandos have taken the trouble to record in English: there is not much point when you cannot hear the words, an intermittent occurrence, not only in aria but also in recitative.

That said there is a splendid example of the reverse where the orchestra fades leaving the chorus of servants in charge (before Giannetto’s cavatina). The chorus is good: very good: from the rustic opening to the drama of the court scene where there is threatening power with the later smooth funeral type march.

The Ninetta of Majella Cullagh takes centre stage. Her coloratura runs are a delight with seamless head to chest transfers. There is a suggestion of shrillness when she has to leap to a particularly high note or when it is delivered forte. Just occasionally she sounds insecure in one or two of the very fast ensembles, taken at a gallop rather than a canter. These are compensated for by a glorious tone particularly at the deliciously low end of her vocal range which she displays with satisfying frequency.

For her, and just as importantly for all the leading soloists without exception, it is their vocal balance with each other which is one of the great strengths of this recording. In Majella Cullagh’s role: the moving and gentle duet with her father Fernando (Russell Smythe); the stroppy interaction with the devious Mayor (Christopher Purves) and her quite splendid duet with Giannetto (Barry Banks) at the prison.

Fernando is not a commanding role. Despite the drama Russell Smythe injects into his opening recitative and his protestations in the prison scene it is almost a subdued parental role. However he brings a very important balance to the ensembles where he contributes significantly to the vocal precision. I enjoyed particularly the stunningly good quartet at the end of the prison scene.

Barry Banks’ distinctive timbre makes a readily identifiable prodigal returning hero, Giannetto. He can cut through any orchestral take-over bid but in despatching them there are occasional signs of strain particularly when soaring on high. Again his voice provides the distinctive high tenor to balance with the tessitura of the other soloists in the ensembles. As I have said already the prison scene duet is very good and enables both Banks and Cullagh to demonstrate some delicate vocal colouring.

With a spectrum of vocal colour, for me, Christopher Purves is outstanding. He portrays the darker side skilfully with some excellent vocal characterisation. He clearly relishes the investigative scene as he does his attempted seduction of Ninetta. In that later scene he produces some wonderfully open vowel round sounds almost dripping with colour.

Susan Bickley and Jeremy White also clearly enjoy their roles: Gianetto’s parents / Ninetta’s employers. Jeremy White’s sonorous tone even manages to suggest controlled Bacchanalian pleasure. He contributes importantly to the ensembles with his very distinctive characterisation and deep bass harmonisation.

Nerys Jones, in the trouser role of Pippo, presents strongly her supporting role. In her duet with Majella Cullagh in the second Act she conveys well that question, with no clear answer, of how far her emotions might travel. A very smooth duet with gentle modulations.

John Graham-Hall’s Isaaco is a model Dell Boy / Fagin / Artful Dodger all rolled into one with just the right level of almost distanced insouciance. The other supporting roles are just as well sung and characterised – all totally enjoyable.

The usual high quality box packaging on the outer sleeve (but not on the CD box itself or booklet) has a non-removable sticky label "featuring Prunella Scales as the magpie". Indeed so it does and she has the best ‘caw’ I have ever heard. I just hope that her fans will not be misled into thinking there is more to her role than that. Incidentally, I was amused / diverted by the Italian spelling of ‘melodrama’ (double m) in the title on the box.

So, with two full CDs, conveniently one for each act, an excellent number and placing of cue or prompt points and a modest price, there is only one question: what are you waiting for before adding this to your collection?

Robert McKechnie

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