The Guilty Magpie?

The story of La Gazza Ladra turns on a series of crazy coincidences and a handful of situations that are supposed to be realistic.

Magpie with possibly shiny object

The coincidences: that a serving-girl who is suspected of stealing silverware should happen to sell some non-stolen silverware to an itinerant peddler...and that it should happen to match the pieces (a fork and a spoon) that went missing from her employer...and that each should happen to be monogrammed with the same initials (her father is Fernando Villabella, her boss is Fabrizio Vinogradito)...and that she should feel unable to explain because her father is under sentence of death for deserting the army. All because dad wanted to stop by to see his girl and went ballistic when his commanding officer said “no.”

Too much, right? But audiences at the time loved improbable events conspiring to produce intense situations. For this kind of drama, coincidences are a feature, not a bug. Popular novels of similar vintage are even fuller of them - including many still respected and even beloved today. If you make a chart of the chance encounters that shape David Copperfield or Middlemarch, it will look maze-like and - in the absence of the prose - pretty ridiculous.

The situations we are supposed to consider realistic are three:

  • That death sentences could be imposed for such things as going AWOL from the army or stealing some silverware. All too real; life was cheap, especially the lives of commoners. England’s “Bloody Code” at the start of the 19th century had about 220 crimes punishable by execution, among them “grand larceny,” which was defined as anything worth more than twelve pence, at the time about 5% of a skilled worker’s weekly pay.

  • That a small-town mayor might propose commutation of a sentence in exchange for sexual favors. No problem with believing that one in our Me-Too era; it’s still going on.

  • That magpies are drawn to shiny objects and inclined to carry them off, thus exposing innocent serving-maids to the gallows and whole villages to convulsions of scandal and grief.  This one is a little problematic.

Magpie examining hex nut (but will he pick it up?)

European folklore - not just in this opera and the popular play on which it was based - has long held that the common magpie (pica pica) carries bright trinkets to its nest. An Exeter University study in 2014 concluded that this is myth; in 64 trials with items like screws and bits of tin foil placed near clumps of nuts, only two birds took the bait, and both discarded the inedible objects immediately. Some of them even reduced their nut consumption because the alien objects apparently made them nervous.

On the other hand, the study may have been imperfect (it seems that “married” magpies like regularity in their feeding habits, and it’s possible that singletons forage more variously). And there are undeniable photographs that at least seem to show the traditional behavior - though none with anything nearly as big as a table fork.

So in this case we may have to suspend disbelief in order to take Rossini’s opera half-seriously. Please note, however, that according to Ballou’s Monthly Magazine (Boston, August 1875), a servant girl at a country manor near Lambeth was “taken into custody, on suspicion of stealing” a spoon and a pair of sugar-tongs, only to be released when they were found (along with a milk-pot!!) in a bird’s nest in the garden. The culpable party in this case was a raven (corvus corax), but I think we can accept a bit of poetic license, and need not retitle the opera Il Corvo Ladro.