Only Half Joking

ItalyItaly Rossini Opera Festival (4) La Gazza Ladra.  Orchestra and Chorus of Teatro Communale Bologna,  Chorus Master, Andrea Faidutti, Conductor, Donato Renzetti; Staging by Damiano Michieletto with sets by Paolo Fantin, Cotumes by Carla Teti and Lighting by Alessandro Carletti.  Adriatic Arena, Pesaro. 16.8.2015 (JB)

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La Gazza Ladra at the Rossini Festival
Photo credit: studio amati bacciardi

Fabrizio Vingradito a prosperous farmer – Simone Alberghini
Lucia, his wife – Teresa Jervolino
Gianetto, their son – René Barbera
Pippo, a country  lad in Fabrizio’s service – Lena Belkina
Ninetta, a servant in Fabrizio’s household – Nino Machaidze
Fernando Villabella, her soldier father – Alex Esposito
Gottardo, the village mayor – Marko Mimica
Issaco, an itinerant pedlar – Matteo Macchioni
Antonio, the jailor – Alessandro Luciano
A magpie – Sandhya Nagaraja


Rossini’s discomfort with La Gazza Ladra caused him to rework it many times –not all of them to simply accommodate an interesting new singer.  The real difficulty, which remains in present day performing editions, is to convincingly combine the dramatic events with the comic –the so-called opera semi-seria.  The story, which can be swiftly told, was based on real-life events.  Fernando Villabella, a man of military distinction, has struck his superior officer and accidentally killed him.  A warrant is issued for his arrest.  His beloved daughter, Ninetta, to make ends meet, has taken work as a servant with their friendly, prosperous, neighboring farmer, Fabrizio Vingradito, whose son, Gianetto, has everyone’s permission to marry on the boy’s return from the war.  Everyone that is except Lucia, Fabrizio’s wife, who is convinced that Ninetta has stolen a silver fork from the family’s treasures.  Under the draconian laws of eighteenth century France a servant found guilty of domestic theft was hanged.  The real-life girl was hanged before the judges found the spoon in a magpie’s nest.  The opera has the spoon in the nest found in the nick of time to lead to a joyful finale.

The Venetian stage director, Damiano Michieletto, has woven together the disparate elements of this tale with rare imagination and intelligence.  His production was first seen in  a 2007 staging at the ROF and the Arena of Verona, and has now been revived.  The whole of the first act is a drama giocoso (think Don Giovanni) only slowing down for the spiritual melodrama of Parsifal in the judgement scene but thereafter rescued for the reprieve and allegro finale.  Of course, the  tempo jars and there is a regrettable feeling of Wagnerian length and depth to this scene.  No way around that.  The opera runs to just over three hours, with a short interval.  But Michieletto never abandons poetic dignity even at the assizes.

Michieletto begins and ends his tale with the source of all the mischief –the magpie.  The Indian dancer, Sandhya Nagaraja, is perfect in this role: beautiful, slight of build and mischievously agile in every movement, shrugging of shoulders, raising of questioning hands, darting of athletic feet.  It all makes sense of Rossini’s nonsense.  We meet her during the overture, one of Rossini’s most performed, where his musical wit is at its finest.  The little creature is stretching herself in bed to awaken in the morning.  The kind of bed you and I might sleep in and the kinds of stretching we might perform at dawn.  But as the overture slips into its allegro vivace a gauze rope curtain descends from the rafters in which the human bird wraps herself, so we are led into a flying ballet, floating and whizzing round the stage.

The curtain goes up on the chorus of villagers excited to be awaiting Gianetto back from the war.  When Lucia asks them to whom Gianetto shall be married, a disembodied voice replies, Ninetta.  This is the magpie, which, of course, no one can identify.  Lucia is not pleased.

Nino Machaidze is a glamorous young Georgian soprano who is already making a big name for herself.  And she is certainly impressive in the accuracy of both rhythm and pitch –both key Rossini requirements.  But as often happens with Georgian singers there is a harsh edge with much of her delivery. Rossini introduces us to Ninetta with a cavatina of great charm – Di piacer mi balza il cor –  which with her somewhat warrior-like approach rather missed the composer’s request.  But when it came to her impassioned duet with her father she was vocally thrilling.  And Alex Esposito as Fernando was more than her equal in dramatic expression.  The two made for a memorable showstopper.

Among the many pleasures of La Gazza Ladra is Rossini’ careful making of the smaller roles.  Isacco is a pedlar of great charm and dubious honesty, and as he introduces himself and his wares it is impossible not to be taken by both qualities.  Matteo Macchioni delivered the irresistible charm perfectly.

Similarly, when the country lad Pippo calls for a toast to the newly arrived Gianetto – Tocchiamo, beviamo! – the lad’s blatant simplistic honesty simply pours out of him.  Rossini rewrote this role for tenor in some of his reworkings but I was delighted to hear the original contralto performance of the excellent Lena Balkina who gets his/her pants taken off by the magpie during the Brindisi.  The right pantomime touch all round.

The American tenor, René Barbera, has a fine heroic voice as Gianetto but the applause after his opening aria – Vieni fra queste braccia – had some dissenters, possibly on account of his less than perfect Italian diction.  But he was much finer and more relaxed in the role in the prison scene duet with Ninetta – Forse un dì conoscerete. 

Right from the start Rossini establishes the character of Lucia, the farmer’s wife as a complex woman: bossy but also capable of heartfelt understanding.  The second quality only finds real expression in her main aria at the end of the opera when she repents of her wrong judgement on Ninetta – A questo seno.   Teresa Iervolino was a moving singer/actor of  this fine role.

Rossini first makes Gottardo, the crooked, stupid mayor of the village, the basso buffo but as the plot darkens he becomes the undisputed villain.  The Serbian bass, Marko Mimica, transmutes from one role to the other most impressively, especially in his (final) misplaced, darker declarations of love for Ninetta – Si, per voi, pupille amate.  This brought the applause of the evening and I was glad to be part of it.

Donato Renzetti is well established as one of today’s great Rossini conductors and he was clearly in command of the excellence of the show.  I still find it hard to forgive him for the slow tempo of the trial scene.  But then that tempo is Rossini’s requirement.  And I am informed that the audience at the 1817 La Scala premiere found it one of the most moving scenes in the whole glorious opera.

Jack Buckley

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