ABOUT LA GAZZA LADRA (THE THIEVING MAGPIE)
Libretto: Giovanni Gherardini, based on the play La Pie Voleuse by Théodore Baudouin d'Aubigny and Louis-Charles Caigniez
Premiere: 31 May 1817, Teatro alla Scala, Milan
Chopin’s favorite opera, quoted or paraphrased in at least three of his works
The last Rossini opera to be retouched by the composer, fifty years after its premiere
You know the overture if you’ve seen A Clockwork Orange (but try not to think of that!)
La Gazza Ladra belongs to a very important transitional genre, the “opera semiseria.” Literally the term means “half-serious.” In practice it means that the characters are drawn from the world of “opera buffa” - villagers, ordinary working-class people, not nobles drawn from history - but serious things happen. The heroine of La Gazza is tried and condemned for theft, and is on her way to the gallows when rescue arrives (yes, the titular magpie was the real thief of the missing silver). This “slice of life” approach paved the way for everything from La Traviata to Cavalleria Rusticana and Pagliacci, all treating subjects that would have been impossible for the earlier concept of “opera seria.”
The score is one of Rossini’s very richest, and the opera was one of his most popular. It was so successful that Donizetti wrote a “remake” of it - Linda di Chamounix, one of his most popular works in its turn, is modeled on La Gazza role by role and almost piece by piece. For a good while the same interpreters were prominent in both operas. Linda survived longer, staying on the fringes of the repertory as late as the 1930s, but the earlier opera had a long run as well. It was one of the few Rossini titles still in the standard repertory after the composer’s death, and was the last one he retouched: in 1867, nearly four decades into his legendary retirement and a full half-century after the work’s birth, he helped out with a Paris production, supplying some ornaments and a new section in the finale for the young soprano Adelina Patti.
La Gazza has another interesting distinction: it is mentioned oftener than any other opera in the letters of Chopin (a huge Bel Canto fan), and quoted or paraphrased more than once in his music. His single best-known composition, the Funeral March in the second piano sonata, follows closely the structure of Ninetta’s procession to the gallows: the march is heard twice in a terrifying crescendo, with a melodious prayer between.
The one part of the opera never forgotten is the overture, which has remained a concert favorite and been used in several film and television soundtracks. It may sound cheerful to modern ears, which makes its use for a gruesome scene in A Clockwork Orange seem a bit of brilliant grotesquerie. But - in fairness to both Stanley Kubrick and Rossini - when the overture’s music returns twice during the opera, it is associated each time with Ninetta’s death sentence.