- Melodramma in 2 acts
- Composer: Gioachino Rossini
- Libretto: Giovanni Gherardini, after La pie voleuse by Théodore Baudouin d’Aubigny and Louis-Charles Caigniez
- First performed: Teatro alla Scala, Milan, 31 May 1817
SETTING: A village near Paris
CHARACTERS: FABRIZIO VINGRADITO (bass), a rich farmer; LUCIA (mezzo-soprano), his wife; GIANNETTO (tenor), their son, a soldier; NINETTA (soprano), servant in Fabrizio’s house; FERNANDO VILLABELLA (bass), Ninetta’s father, a soldier; Gottardo, the PODESTÀ [Mayor] of the village (bass); PIPPO (contralto), country lad in Fabrizio’s service; ISACCO (tenor), a pedlar; ANTONIO (tenor), a gaoler; GIORGIO (bass), the Podestà’s servant; ERNESTO (bass), a soldier, Fernando’s friend; the Praetor [Head Judge] (bass) of the village; GREGORIO (bass), chancellor
ORIGINAL CAST: Vincenzo Botticelli as Fabrizio ; Marietta Castiglioni as Lucia; Salvino Morelli as Giannetto; Teresa Belloc-Giorgi as Ninetta; Filipop Galli as Fernando; Antonio Ambrosi as the Podestà; Teresa Galliani as Pippo; Francesco Biscottini as Isacco and Antonio; Paolo Rosignoli as Giorgio; Alessandro De Angeli as Ernesto
La gazza ladra introduces naturalism to Italian serious opera. The setting is a village; the heroine a servant girl condemned to death for stealing cutlery; the villain a corrupt mayor, a small town Scarpia who demands sexual favours in return for a pardon. They are surrounded by a gallery of everyday types: a kind-hearted farmer and his bossy wife, peasants, soldiers, Jewish peddlers. Such characters may have appeared in opera buffa, but never in opera seria. With this opera, Rossini paved the way for Bellini (La sonnambula), Donizetti (Linda di Chamounix), and Verdi (Luisa Miller) – and perhaps for the verismists.
The source was a popular French play, Aubigny and Caigniez’s Pie voleuse (1815), inspired by a poor servant girl who was hanged at Palaiseau; only afterwards was it discovered that the true culprit was a magpie.
La gazza ladra was a commission for Milan – Rossini’s first work for that city since the failure of Il turco in Italia three years before. The elite at La Scala were hostile; moreover, they not kindly disposed towards a composer who had scored successes in Rome (The Barber of Seville, La Cenerentola) or Naples (most recently Otello). Rossini, Stendhal notes, had good reason to be afraid.
And so he decided to grab their attention from the outset. The overture opens with a flourish of two drums, one at each end of the orchestra. The Milanese had not heard anything like it before. The audience had not heard 20 bars of the sinfonia, Stendhal writes, before they were reconciled; and they were mad with delight by the end of the first presto. They applauded and shouted noisily for five minutes; when they no longer had the strength to yell, they talked to their neighbours. The coldest and oldest members of the lodges cried out: ‘O bello! O bello!’ and the words were repeated 20 more times.
From then on, the opera house was a scene of enthusiasm. Throughout the evening, the public rose to shower Rossini with praise; he later said he was fatigued by acknowledging their cries of ‘Bravo maestro!’ and ‘Viva Rossini!’ hundreds of times.
The next day, some of the critics were severe; they complained about variations instead of melodies, a complete absence of feeling for characters and situations, the abuse of formulas, too many crescendos, too lively rhythms. “Never has dramatic truth been more daringly trampled underfoot; this music stuns you without charming you,” one wrote. “They call this lyrical drama; I can only see a collection of dance tunes.” Another claimed that the opera was a sort of military symphony, lacking only two or three cannons to deafen a fortress garrison with its German artillery. One music student was so horrified by Rossini introducing the drums to the orchestra that he vowed to stab the musician to death with his stiletto.
La gazza ladra was soon, however, hailed as one of Rossini’s masterpieces. “The melodies, sometimes buffa, sometimes serious, continually shine with real inspiration,” Clément wrote. “The composer was able through his music to raise a mediocre melodrama to the level of poignant tragedy.” It spread across Europe; by the end of the year, it was produced in Munich, and, Richard Osborne notes, heard from Amsterdam to St. Petersburg.
But La gazza ladra is also one of Rossini’s longest, indeed most long-winded, works; each of its two acts last an hour and three quarters, and very little happens in the first act until halfway through. There are choruses, entrance arias for soprano and tenor, a drinking song, and a characteristic imitation of a Jewish peddler.
After the magnificent overture, the curtain rises on the courtyard of Fabrizio’s farm. Today his son Giannetto will return from war. The villagers lay the table, while the farmer’s wife Lucia orders them about. She wants to see her son married, but not to the servant girl Ninetta, too prone to losing forks. The Introduzione (‘Oh che giorno fortunato!’) ends with a brilliant stretta (‘Là seduto l’amato Giannetto’). Now the prima donna appears; Ninetta’s cavatina (‘Di piacer mi balza il cor’) is in two parts: moderato (looking forward to seeing her lover and her father) and a florid allegro (how happy she is). This was one of the successes of the première; Stendhal thought it one of Rossini’s happiest inspirations. We pass over the peddler Isacco’s monotonous cavatina (‘Stringhe e ferri da calzetto’); it prompted anti-Semitic remarks from Stendhal. A chorus (‘Viva, viva!’) announces the return of Giannetto. The tenor’s cavatina (‘Vieni fra queste braccia’) is addressed to Ninetta, ignoring his parents and other friends; the allegro is exhilaratingly flamboyant. The young peasant Pippo offers a toast in a tongue-twisting brindisi (‘Tocchiamo, beviamo’). The family leave to see their uncle, and the plot starts to move, 45 minutes into the work.
Fernando, Ninetta’s father, stealthily enters; he is on the run, condemned to death after fighting with his captain. His duet with Ninetta (‘Come frenare il pianto!’) looks forward to Verdi’s father/daughter scenes; it consists of a reflective allegro moderato; an andantino in unison as they embrace each other; and a vivace as they see the Podestà approach. The Mayor plans to seduce Ninetta, he reveals in his cavatina (‘Il mio piano è preparato’). Fernando gives a spoon and a fork to Ninetta for her to sell. The Podestà, suspicious of this ‘tramp’, asks Ninetta to read a description of the wanted man (he has lost his spectacles); the situation is similar to the inn scene of Boris Godunov. She lies, lulling his suspicions. The Podestà then tries to seduce Ninetta, outraging the old man. The trio ‘Oh Nume benefico’ – a prayer for three voices – was a hit on the night. The two men head off in opposite directions, while Ninetta watches her father leave. Behind her back, the magpie swoops down and steals a spoon.
The last scene of Act I takes place in Fabrizio’s house. Ninetta sells the cutlery her father gave her to Isacco; unfortunately, Lucia discovers a spoon is missing, and suspects the girl. The Podestà takes charge, and discovers that the cutlery Isacco bought was marked ‘F.V.’. All assume that they are Fabrizio Vingradito’s (and not Fernando Villabella’s); and Ninetta will not speak, unwilling to incriminate her father. The Podestà arrests the young woman, and has her dragged off to prison. Death awaits her if she is found guilty. The finale contains a really beautiful andantino (‘Mi senti opprimere’) – the finest piece in the act – and ends in a tremendous stretta (‘In prigione costei sia condotta’). The outsize numbers and orchestral forces seem out of place for a domestic drama.
Act II begins in the vestibule of the town hall. Ninetta is in jail, awaiting her trial. She has three visitors: her boyfriend Giannetto (the duet ‘Forse un di conoscete’ is modelled on the Act II duet in the Barber, with interjections by a bass); the Podestà, who offers to pardon her if she yields to him (‘Si per voi, pupille amate’); and Pippo (their melancholy duet ‘Ebben, per mia memoria’, for soprano and contralto, looks forward to Bellini).
The scene returns to the interior of Fabrizio’s house. Fernando learns from Lucia that his daughter is before the court, accused of theft; he resolves to save her, even at the cost of his own life (aria: ‘Accusata di furto … oh rossore!’).
Stendhal considered the big ensemble of Act II the strongest scene of modern Italian opera and of Rossini’s works. The scene is set in a courtroom in the town hall, where the judges have just made their decision: Ninetta has been unanimously condemned to death. Stendhal found the judges’ maestoso chorus ‘Tremate, o popoli’ magnificent and terrifying. The adagio quartet (‘Ah qual colpo! … Già d’intorno’), Stendhal wrote, freezes the blood; to a modern listener, it seems inappropriately jolly, as if it escaped from La Cenerentola. Fernando enters and reveals his identity – but the law is immutable; now both father and daughter will be executed. There is a fine andante quintet (‘Che abisso di pene!’) in which one finds the germ of the quartet ‘Mi manca la voce’ in Mosè in Egitto. The scene ends in a vivace ensemble (‘Sino il pianto è negato al mio ciglio’) set to a waltz; Stendhal thought the dance rhythm represented the terrible and inevitable rapidity of this blow of fate, but admitted that some found it absurd.
The scene changes to a village square. Lucia emerges from the church where she has been praying; her aria di sorbetto (‘A questo seno’) is a minor number. Ernesto, a soldier friend of Fernando’s, arrives with good news: the king has pardoned Fernando. Ninetta enters on her way to execution, accompanied by guards; outside the church, she too pauses to pray (‘Deh tu reggi in tal momento’) before continuing her grim journey. At that moment, Pippo and the Podestà’s servant Giorgio discover the stolen cutlery in the magpie’s nest; they ring the church bells, and the execution is halted. The finale begins with an outburst of joy in C major, and ends with a vaudeville – a happy ending for all but the remorseful Podestà.
- Henri Blaze de Bury, Compositeurs contemporains – Rossini, sa Vie et ses Œuvres – II. – Séconde période italienne, d’Otello à Semiramide, Revue des Deux Mondes, 1854
- Félix Clément, Dictionnaire des opéras, 1869
- Henry Sutherland Edwards, The Life of Rossini, 1869
- Charles Osborne, The Bel Canto Operas of Rossini, Donizetti and Bellini. Portland, Oregon: Amadeus Press, 1994.
- Stendhal, Vie de Rossini, 1824
See also m’colleague Phil’s review.