(Credit: Teatro Nuovo)
On the evening of Thursday, July 18, 2019, opera lovers excitedly took to their seats for a semi-staged production of Rossini’s rarely performed “La Gazza Ladra” (“The Thieving Magpie”) at Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Rose Theater.
The opera was presented by Teatro Nuovo, a fairly new organization which aims to produce “exciting revivals of neglected Bel Canto masterworks alongside freshly re-studied interpretations of familiar ones.”
“La Gazza Ladra,” which fits into the transitional genre of opera semiseria, tells the nearly-tragic story of young servant Ninetta, mistakenly convicted on the charge of domestic theft of her employers’ silver cutlery and sentenced to public execution. Her saving grace was the last-minute discovery of the real culprit, the family’s Magpie, eager to decorate his nest with pilfered shiny objects.
The Program Note describes the score as “one of Rossini’s richest,” and mentions that the opera “was one of his most popular.” In fact, it is said to be the favorite opera of composer Frédéric Chopin, repeatedly mentioned in his letters and referenced in his music.
Setting the Scene
At the conclusion of the opera’s famous Overture (notable for its use of snare drums), the stage lit up to reveal a long table, covered by a black and white tablecloth bearing the image of a magpie. A bright blue sky background, which later darkened to fit the changing mood, seemed appropriate for this opera centered around birds – the Magpie, our affectionate “turtle doves” (Ninetta and Giannetto), and the scheming “crow” (Il Podestà). The well-to-do Vingradito family’s pesky pet, portrayed by Christopher Hochstuhl, made his nest in the nearest box left of the stage.
In anticipation of the return of Fabrizio and Lucia’s son Giannetto from the war, chorus members – friends of the family – gathered on either side of the stage, music in hand. In one particularly memorable moment of celebration, the ensemble crowded around the edge of the stage to surround the orchestra, as if the musicians too were a part of the scene. A few showed off their instruments as the on-stage crowd cheered.
The entire ensemble, aside from our heroine, donned black and white formal attire. Ninetta was the odd one out, of course, the belle of the ball in a shimmering cream-colored gown. I found this slightly odd considering her lower status in the household, but it was her Act two costume – a darker but equally elegant gown – that threw me. I couldn’t help but think how over-dressed she was for prison!
Compared to Act one, Act two did little to engage me visually, between the bareness of the stage and the ensemble’s muted garb. This resulted in moments that seemed to drag on. Thankfully, the singing and acting were more than enough to hold my attention.
The Turtle Doves
Starring in the role of Ninetta was soprano Alisa Jordheim. Her voice was vibrant at the top, and she successfully showcased her coloratura early on during “Di piacer mi balza il cor.” One high point of her performance was the duet between Ninetta and Giannetto in Act two, during which she dispels his lingering doubts about her innocence. The two shared beautiful chemistry, extracting sincere performances from each other. Ninetta’s prayer, “Deh! Tu reggi in tal momento,” was another shining moment in the opera – such an ethereal voice could never commit a sin so terrible as to warrant the death penalty! Her purity in this number made her imminent execution all the more horrifying.
However, some of Jordheim’s middle/lower notes were lost to the orchestra. I feel that more power in those notes could have really brought home her character’s anguish at times by providing a contrast to the lofty charm of her cavatina. Her physical engagement, including facial expressions, was somewhat lacking as well, and because I had trouble distinguishing precisely what she was feeling at each stage – shock, fear, anger, sorrow? – I sometimes found it difficult to empathize with her character.
Oliver Sewell sang the role of Ninetta’s lover, Giannetto. His first scene was quite memorable: As the surrounding party was dimmed out, the newly-returned soldier took his time to gaze lovingly into the eyes of his Ninetta, before warmly coaxing her into his arms with a passionate rendition of “Vieni fra queste braccia.”
Mezzo-soprano Allison Gish’s Lucia seamlessly transformed from a cold and disapproving employer into a remorseful and compassionate mother-figure in one of the more touching moments of the opera (“A questo seno”), coming to realize that the punishment of death didn’t fit the petty crime – if there really was a crime! Baritone Rob McGinness, though sometimes difficult to hear over the orchestra, was earnest in his portrayal of Fabrizio, trusting and kind-hearted toward his future daughter-in-law.
Erik van Heyningen sang the role of Ninetta’s dear father, Fernando Villabella, his rich bass-baritone consistently audible and clear. His contempt for Il Podestà was palpable in two very brief but significant moments – the first (in Act one, as he confronts him over the harassment of his daughter) a glare masking fear and trepidation, the second (at the very end, as he shares his clemency) a satisfied smirk affirming his freedom. Heyningen’s skillfully acted exchanges with Tashjian highlighted the dual nature of the semiseria work – serious, but ultimately positive, even comedic.
Il Podestà & Pippo Steal the Show
Bass Hans Tashjian, wielding his smooth, dignified voice, proved himself well-suited the role of Il Podestà (“the Mayor”). Towering above his stage mates, he maintained a posture which exuded confidence and an expression that clearly read arrogance. That is, until the end of the opera, when he was visibly consumed by guilt. Throughout the performance Tashjian remained in the moment even when he was not at the center of the moment, his presence always drawing the eye during ensemble numbers.
The standout performance of the evening was undoubtedly that of mezzo-soprano Hannah Ludwig in the role of Pippo. In the opening scene, she buzzed with sassy energy, rivaled only by that of the mischievous Magpie. Her Act two duet with Ninetta (“Ebben, per mia memoria”), however, was a true show-stopper. Despite a dark, bare stage, Ludwig’s full-bodied sound and tear-filled eyes lit up the scene as she struggled to find hope, hope that her words to Ninetta would not be her last words to Ninetta. And of course, it was truly satisfying to watch her bold, spirited Pippo regain her joviality as her dear friend was set free – just in the nick of time!
Overall, this intimate performance was highly entertaining and offered a refreshing opportunity to venture beyond the standard repertoire. The Teatro Nuovo team succeeded in giving life to a Rossini masterwork that deserves to be experienced by many.