Theme and Variations

Thoughts and experiences of exploring classical, jazz, and other art music.

Tuesday, September 27, 2005

La Gazza Ladra

Last night I had the house to myself, as everyone was at my in-laws for dinner and I had a migraine. So, I took the opportunity to watch Rossini's La Gazza Ladra, (The Thieving Magpie). What brought the opera to my attention was that it featured Ileana Cotrubas, a fine singer and great actress, and I have been trying to collect her perfomances on DVD, video, and CD. The DVD version of the opera can be found here.

The video is from Kultur, and did not explicitly state that it was subtitled in English, so I took a chance. Luckily, it was. The opening credits stated it was an "Opera Semiseria" which I now take to mean that it isn't a comedy but it does have a happy ending.

The video gave a complete run-through of the story prior to the performance, shown during the overture. At first I found this a bit irritating, as I like to get the story as the opera is performed. However, knowing what was to happen and how it ended, I found I could spend more time paying attention to the performances of the various singers. So, there were moments at the end of arias and duets where I could notice, "Hey, that was pretty good." In the end, even though I knew how the opera ended, I was able to appreciate it, just more as a performance than as a story.

For example, (and maybe I am biased here) I was floored by Cotrubas entrance aria. She has such a great smile to go along with her singing; that smile gets me every time.

I don't know how popular this opera is, I only found it by searching for Cotrubas. In a nutshell, the story is as follows. Ninetta is a servant in the house of Fabrizio Vongradito (the full name is important, as you'll see), whose son Giannetto is returning from a war. Giannetto and Ninetta are in love, against the wishes of Lucia, Fabrizio's wife. Lucia has stern words for Ninetta, therefore, and instructs the latter to prepare for Giannetto's return banquet. Lucia instructs Ninetta to keep a close watch on the silverware, as a fork has gone missing. Giannetto returns, gets googly-eyed with Ninetta, but before long the family and staff leave to visit Gianetto's uncle out in the country, leaving Ninetta to take care of things until they return.

While everyone is away, Ninetta's father, Fernando Villabella, shows up and explains to Ninetta that for a very good reason he had to desert the army, and is now a wanted man. He has no money, so he gives Ninetta a silver fork and spoon to sell to a peddler for as much money as she can. Soon Gottardo, the mayor, shows up (and he is a bass, as befits proper operatic villains), and nearly rapes Ninetta until her father intervenes. Thus is there bad blood between the mayor and her father.

Various things happen which add nice details to the story, but I will keep things short (as I can). Ninetta does sell her father's silver to the peddler for three scudas (what is a scuda?). Gianetto's entourage returns, and Lucia discovers that a teaspoon is now missing. The mayor holds an on-the-spot investigation, and all the evidence points to Ninetta. The peddler is sent for; he does not have the fork and spoon he bought from Ninetta, as he has sold them, but he recalls that the initials on the silverware were "F.V." (Now you know why the full names are important.)

Ninetta cannot tell anyone that she got the utensils from her father, as he is a wanted man, so off to jail she goes. The mayor offers to let her off if she will do his will, but she refuses, which ticks off the mayor something fierce. At the trial, Ninetta is sentenced to death (the area is under martial law, so things get a bit stern). Fernando (Ninetta's father) shows up at the trial to beg the jury to have mercy on his daughter. The mayor recognizes Fernando and has him arrested. Ninetta is sent to the gallows, and Fernando is sent to jail.

I have not told you about Pippo. Pippo is a young peasant boy in the employ of Fabrizio, and the closest thing to a jester in the opera. As Ninetta is led off to the gallows, Pippo is looking over a shiny cross Ninetta had given him from her jail cell. A magpie, a pet in Fabrizio's house, flies by and swipes the cross. Pippo sees where the bird has taken it, and climbs up to find the bird's cache of stolen treasure, including the Lucia's missing fork and spoon. Ninetta is exonerated just at the last minute. Meanwhile, her father Fernando is given a pardon from the King (not Elvis) and father and daughter are reunited. Everyone gets to sing together about how great love is, the mayor gets to grumble, and the opera is brought to a close.

It takes around three hours for the opera performance. During the rolling credits, the magpie is given as a character, I guess he plays himself. I'm not really sure how they got the mechanical magpie to do what it did, but it even had a speaking role (it knows the names of Pippo and Ninetta). I really enjoyed the opera, and it has become a favorite in the short list of operas I have seen and heard.

It also really hit me that opera is really an artform that takes themes to extremes. "Melodramatic" singing and acting is called for in opera. I suppose this should not be a surprise, considering all the words are sung, and nobody does that (Buffy the Vampire Slayer episode "Once More..." not withstanding).


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