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ROSSINI: La Gazza Ladra

spacer Cantarero; Korchak, Pertusi, Esposito; Prague Chamber Choir, Orchestra Haydn di Bolzano e Trento, Lu Jia. Production: Michieletto. Dynamic 55567 (Blu-ray) or 33567 (2 DVDs), 201 mins., subtitled

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In the chronology of Rossini's stage works, La Gazza Ladra shares the year 1817 with La Cenerentola,which it followed by four months, and Armida,which followed it by three. This tale of an honest servant girl condemned for a theft committed by the titular magpie was billed as a melodramma, but today it's most often categorized as an opera semiseria — one that mixes comic and serious elements, with a happy outcome de rigueur. With Rossini, though, the "serious" can sound not merely semiserious but downright lighthearted: here,for example, much of the scene following the heroine's death sentence seems no graver than Cinderella's appearance at the prince's ball. True gravity — or at least an ingenious simulacrum of it — was something Rossini learned later in life and probably never much esteemed. 

For most of its two-century career, La Gazza Ladra has been known best for its scintillating, martially infused overture, and repeated hearings of the complete opera haven't displaced the overture's primacy in my affections. Still, once the curtain rises, there's more fine, splendidly constructed music (much of it comfortably familiar in outline, if not specifics, from other operas of Rossini's). Exceeding three hours of music, its storyline flimsy, its tunes less than top-drawer, La Gazza Ladra still manages, by that weird Rossinian alchemy, to beguile. 

Damiano Michieletto's production, concocted for the 2007 Rossini Opera Festival in Pesaro, helpfully draws a firm visual line between the comico and the serio,with his Act I largely in the former camp and his Act II — beginning with a rainstorm that leaves the singers wading through its aftermath — firmly in the latter. This being twenty-first-century Europe, of course there's a concept, which posits the opera as a modern tweenage girl's funny-dream-turned-nightmare in which she's the thieving magpie, impish at curtain rise and cowering at final curtain before a punitive firing squad — at which point, as inevitably happens in dreams, she wakes up. The white cylinders she plays with before falling asleep become, much enlarged, the set, which continually reconfigures to suggest the various scenes. But Michieletto proves nearly as adept an alchemist as Rossini in making it all cohere and, more important, entertain. 

He clearly worked hard with his hardworking cast, and they deliver the essence of scene after scene, despite some less-than-front-rank vocalism. For years the choice recording of the opera has been another Pesaro production, on Sony, from 1989, and strictly in terms of the musical performance, the new issue does not threaten to unseat its predecessor. Mariola Cantarero, for instance, is a good enough Ninetta, but her shallow, fluttery soprano is no match for even a past-her-prime Katia Ricciarelli in sheer allure. Dmitry Korchak's nasal, metallic Giannetto, likewise pleasant enough to see and hear, lacks the sweetness and idiomatic delivery of Sony's William Matteuzzi. The best performances come from two low-voiced Italians — Alex Esposito (even looking far too young), as Ninetta's fugitive deserter dad, and Michele Pertusi, as her unwelcome suitor, the Podestà, easily the opera's meatiest role. They're both fine, but back in 1989 Ferruccio Furlanetto and Samuel Ramey were better still. The supporting cast is unexceptionably good, and in the title role, dancer Sandhya Nagarajatackles her task with wide-eyed mischief and charm. Chinese conductor Lu Jia, with a decade and a half of experience in Italian theaters under his belt, leads a fully idiomatic, well paced performance of Alberto Zedda's critical edition of the score. 

Sound and image are both first-class: the camerawork handsomely captures the production's simple, bold lines and palette (as well as the singers' ample sweat and not-well-camouflaged head mikes). If you're not expecting perfection, you can easily expect a good show. spacer

PATRICK DILLON

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Current Issue: September 2014 — VOL. 79, NO. 3