Glimmerglass Festival 2016 – Opera for the Inner Birdwatcher…and the Rest of Us!
The Thieving Magpie (La gazza ladra)
Music by Gioachino Rossini
Libretto by Théodore Baudouin d’Aubigny and Louis-Charles Caigniez.
Conductor, Joseph Colaneri
Director, Peter Kazaras
Choreographer, Meg Gillentine
Sets and Costumes, Myung Hee Cho
Lighting, Mark McCullough
Hair & Makeup, J. Jared Janas & Dave Bova
Projected Titles, Kelley Rourke
Ninetta, Rachele Gilmore
Gottardo, Musa Ngqungwana
Fernando Villabella, Dale Travis
Giannetto, Michele Angelini
Pippo, Allegra De Vita*
Isacco/Antonio, Brad Raymond*
Lucia, Leah Hawkins*
Fabrizio Vingradito, Calvin Griffin*
The Magpie, Meg Gillentine
During my attendance at the very end of this year’s Glimmerglass season, I sensed from the artists the expected release of tension as well as a palpable confidence throughout the performances. Whether bidding farewell to roles that became notches in their belts, or deciding to rethink an interpretation for another time, the artists obtained and conveyed closure.
As always, I seek some unifying subtext for the offerings, and this year the quest was, at face value, quite simple: birds. An outdoor avian sculpture and a birder challenge in the program booklets left no doubt of the “theme” intended. However, the degree of suggestion varied from the most obvious (Rossini’s The Thieving Magpie) to the surreal (Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd) and merely suggestive in the others. Rossini’s rarely performed dramatic comedy, La gazza ladra (The Thieving Magpie) was the most interesting production this season. While I would never concur with Toscanini’s equating Rossini’s talent to that of Mozart (in quality and not merely in youthful quantity), the mix of comedy and high drama certainly had pretensions to some of Mozart’s great operatic moments. Perhaps, Don Giovanni and Die Zauberflöte served as models for the young composer; he even manages some near literal quotes of these works in the second act. In spite of the silliness and transparency of the libretto, there was much vocal delight combined with some of Rossini’s most serious and dramatically effective writing. The heroine, a benighted servant girl, Ninetta, through a series of far-fetched plot conceits, winds up sentenced to death for purportedly stealing her employer’s silverware. The deus ex machina, or, rather the deus ab avis, is a blue-plumed magpie character, athletically mimed by dancer Meg Gillentine. The magpie is guilty of the crime, and its thievery is revealed as such at the very end in order to rescue Ninetta. Ms. Gillentine remained in character throughout the intermission, mingling, cocking her head and preening her feathers to the audience’s enchantment. A little of this shtick went a long way.
Birds were visibly referenced in Sweeney Todd and somewhat tenuously implied in The Crucible and La bohème. However, a far richer context joined the three. The tragic consequences of moral judgement and purblind vengeance seemed to resonate in all four works. Certainly, a narcissistic and obsessive pursuit of retributive murder is at the root of Sweeney Todd. In La bohème, Mimi’s hapless end seems be the last bitter twist to a fragile and marginalized life, suggesting the brutal vetting of the immanence of nature. in Salem, Massachusetts, the setting of The Cruciible, the frenzy that ensures a nighttime tryst and rite by a group of hormonally burgeoning young girls has deadly consequences for their elders. Here, in The Crucible, life and death are indifferently fated by a punitive flaw in formal ethics. However, the artifice of La gazza ladra’s plot, however melodramatic as it seems, falls short of any lingering moralistic quandaries.
Rossini’s sinfonia/overture has survived as a concert favorite, even while the opera itself is rarely performed. Following a sequence of military music (the opera premiered shortly after the Napoleonic Wars), all becomes light and air. The sly sounding “magpie” theme, which ensues, was famously used in Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange and is currently heard as the theme music to cable TV’s channel, Classic Arts Showcase. During the overture we are given a pantomime with Ms. Gillentine’s stylized nest forming a striking mise-en-scène. The theft of the silverware by the magpie is enacted, which is key to understanding the knots and contrivances of what follows. Thus, we know the innocence of the heroine at the outset. Such dramatic irony enhances the plot’s tension as Ninetta’s fate inexorably inches from false discovery and accusation to punishment and near-execution.
The role of Ninetta is one of those extraordinary difficult (and long) coloratura parts that perilously exposes the singer’s tone and accuracy during both range dips and virtuosic ornamentation. Rachele Gilmore was a smashing Zerbinetta in Glimmerglass’s production of Strauss’s Ariadne two seasons ago and again she soared to the occasion. Her voice was a little tight in the first act, but quickly softened and became mellifluous and athletic without losing a feather of expressivity. Her love, Giannetto was sung by Michele Angelini, a tenor of consummate ability. Ninetta has friends: Pippo, a trouser role, vividly and ably sung by Allegra De Vita; Isacco, a comic street merchant/pawn broker portrayed by tenor Brad Raymond; and Fernando Villabella, her father, a soldier absent without leave and with a price on his head, sung by Dale Travis; and, Fabrizio Vingardito, Giannetto’s father, bass-baritone Calvin Griffen, who easily overlooks his wife’s objections to his son’s union with Ninetta. She also has her enemies: Lucia, Giannetto’s mom, mezzo-soprano Leah Hawkins, who is obsessed with counting her cutlery; and Gottardo, the villainous, licentious and corrupt mayor (the Potestà), performed by bass-baritone Musa Ngqungwana.
As musicologist/dramaturg Dr. Clifford Cranna points out in his excellent program notes, La gazza ladra comes to us from an earlier French Comédie larmoyante (“tearful” comedy), La pie voleuse, perhaps based on a true tale of a servant’s death sentence owing to a magpie’s thievery. It is very likely a tall tale, and the stuff of legend and theatrical entertainment.
The avian motif really suffused this production. Director Peter Kazaras was very eager in matching specific characters to feathered counterparts. Most of the characters’ costumes exhibit plumage, and together with a given role’s persona, a specific bird species might be implied. For example, the character of Gottardo is apparently modeled on the vulture. Mr. Ngqungwana’s wonderful and vibrant basso, however, is hardly comparable to the vulture’s rasping call. Pippo is perhaps a friendly and prolix cockatiel, and Isaac, a Jewish street merchant, the wily crow. Giannetto, perhaps an alpha male white dove, especially, is costumed as an over-plumed narcissist. Sometimes his conceit is justified. Mr. Angelini has easily one of the finest and strongest bel canto tenor voices active today. His cavatina in Act I, “Viene fra queste braccia,” was majestic, as the maestoso in the score requires. The power and control of the sustained lines and the breathtaking ease in the coloratura passages were striking. The duet, “Per questo amplesso,” for Ninetta and her father Fernando, was lovingly set in unison sixths with plenty of impressive arpeggios that are characteristic of Rossini. Here, and in the second act, Fernando, torn between saving his daughter and further condemning her by association, is one of the more convincing dramatic roles in the opera. Bass-baritone Dale Travis was superb up close in solos as well as in ensemble.
One of the challenges facing the conductor is synchronizing the rhythmically fluid and fleet vocal passages with the rhythmically incisive and jagged accompaniment. The coordination must allow voices and instruments to act as one single musical gesture. Joseph Colaneri, who has been music director here for the past three seasons, balanced the risky tempi and knotty textures. Flashes of percussion, warbling winds, and skittering strings were lovingly executed and consistently entertaining. This opera is just as much a coloratura for orchestra as for voices.
Rossini’s unrolls one ensemble after another: rondos and variations with increasing levels of coloratura and textural complexity and contrast (fugati and a cappella) Throughout, Rossini places as many technical difficulties on obbligato instruments as he does for the singers. The persistence of double-dotted rhythms drives home the tension while stressing the neatness of the ensembles. In Ninetta’s opening aria, the horns especially were remarkable in delivering Rossini’s ornate discursions.
The supporting roles were all excellently served: Ms. Hawkin’s Lucia, a carping and frumpy character, is handed a difficult tessitura underscoring the mother’s grousing mutterings.
Mr. Griffin’s Fabrizio role was quite the opposite in vocal caricature: resonant extended lines, lying in a confident and optimistic register. Mr. Ngqungwana’s unsympathetic character, Gottardo, the Potestà, a difficult and vigorous part, was portrayed with appropriate malevolence and conviction. His is a rich and resonant voice that one felt guilty for applauding. Ms. De Vita’s Pippo was delightful as a faint third vertex of a love triangle. Her supple voice was perfectly paired with Ms. Glimore.
In the second act, Ninetta’s imprisonment and impending execution were played up for their comic potential as well as the grim, “larmoyante” aspect. The jailor, Antonio (also sung by Mr. Raymond) had the audience in hysterics as he tries with lots of comic mugging to convince Ninetta and Giannetto to escape before the Potestà returns. Mr. Kazaras made sure the condemnation and sentencing was “for the birds” as the court was presided by (literally) a “parliament of fowls:” the justices (numbered as in our current U.S. Supreme Court) are led by a blue and black-feathered eagle-like character who twitched and flitted to distraction. The music, in contrast to the visual antics, was quite dramatic, and revealed more of Rossini’s borrowings from Mozart: the pizzicato strings and winds evoked the somber “Men in Armor” scene in Die Zauberflöte. Most strikingly, after the death sentence is announced, we hear an ironic echo from Don Giovanni – the Commendatore’s denunciation – in the voices of Ninetta and Giannetto. After a brilliant quintet, Ms. Gilmore’s ardent prayer, “Deh! tu reggi in tal momento,” set in the flow of a march that sounds positively Mahleresque, was stunningly strong and passionate with a thrilling cadenza.
Rossini’s work can be both engaging and maddening: the redundancy of musical forms requires extra handling from a director. Tedium is relieved by ingenious staging and direction. Mr. Kazaras’s conception worked far better than other productions I have seen, and apart from some overdone moments, his La gazza ladra might be the finest for years to come.