La gazza ladra – Teatro alla Scala

One of the main operatic events at La Scala this year! Conductor Riccardo Chailly put together an integral performance of La gazza ladra, by Rossini, with no cuts whatsoever, for a total of 3 hours and 40 minutes. It was great. The opera had its first premiere exactly 200 years ago, in 1817; it is funny how during this Easter vacation I saw two operas, both with a very round anniversary (the other being L’incoronazione di Dario, from 300 years ago). I went to La Scala with my 13 yr. old nephew; I was worried that he would not keep it together for such a long opera, but he remained concentrated the whole time, and seemed to enjoy it. There is hope for the world yet!
Gazza04.JPGThe production was directed by Gabriele Salvatores (an Italian movie director), and it was overall very traditional. It had a couple of good ideas, albeit not exactly original ones. The magpie of the title was impersonated by an acrobat swinging from a rope, an idea we had already seen in the production by Michieletto in Pesaro, at the Rossini Opera Festival, in 2007. Nevertheless, the idea works, the acrobat herself (Francesca Alberti) is skilled and her pirouettes, hanging from the ceiling, are very entertaining. Another good idea was the presence of puppets on the scene, which represented the characters who were not present on stage, but spoken about by the ones who were. Except from these two ideas, the rest was kind of boring; the opera is very long and not much happened on stage. So, for me the production was not particularly inspiring, but I didn’t mind it too much.

The story is inspired by a real life event: during the Restauration, in France, a young girl was put to death for stealing something of no consequence. In the opera, the young servant Ninetta is accused of stealing a silver spoon from her employers and is sentenced to death; at the last moment, the magpie of the title is revealed as the real thief, and Ninetta is spared, for the customary happy ending.
There are many interesting details in the plot. The story is set during the Napoleonic wars, and, during the opera, there is a constant reference to the end of the war, and the return of the soldiers from the battlefield. As Chailly remarked, the overture itself describes the passage from war to peace: from the martial beginning, with the uber-famous drum rolls, to the melody of the magpie, with the light and airy violin roulades, representing peace. Two soldiers return home: young Giannetto (Ninetta’s lover, and her employers’ son), and old Fernando Villabella, Ninetta’s father. Giannetto returns in full glory, a beloved and acclaimed victor, while Fernando returns an outcast, a deserter, sentenced to death, hiding in shame.

Sociological digression

The bad guy of the opera is Gottardo, “Il Podestà”, an authority figure, a judge, feared and respected. He is a textbook sexual abuser. An old guy, he lusts after young Ninetta, and he relentlessly harasses her. As he walks on stage, he says that he has already tried to seduce her, and she has refused him. As any abuser, he thinks that “No means Yes”, and convinces himself that her refusal is due to modesty, rather than due to a sincere dislike of him i.e., he refuses to acknowledge her agency. This, as we all know, is a typical abusing technique.

The abuse continues, he keeps pestering the poor girl, and when she refuses him with scorn, he gets enraged. Once again, typical male entitlement, a refusal triggers violence. When Lucia (Ninetta’s employer) complains that a spoon is missing, Il Podestà launches a full-fledged investigation of the theft, hoping to accuse Ninetta. He succeeds, and rejoices in her distress and incarceration.

He then, of course, tries to blackmail her: he visits her in jail, promising clemency if she complies with his pursuit. She refuses once more, and he, enraged and furious for her refusal, sentences her to death.

Here it is: in a story written 200 years ago, we find all the details of the behavior of today’s abusers. We find a perfect description of the sexual harassment that powerful men have inflicted on women since the beginning of the patriarchal society.


End of the sociological digression

The musical production was great!  Chailly gave a very detailed and careful account of Rossini’s music, highlighting all the gems in the score, and leading the wonderful Orchestra della Scala in an exciting run. The super-famous overture was amazing, the orchestra really gave everything. The pit never swallowed the singers, but rather supported them with lightness and incredible skill. The orchestra, at La Scala, is always one of the best performer.

Ninetta was the soprano Rosa Feola, amazingly good!! She has everything: gorgeous timbre, remarkable volume, solid technique, coloratura, breath, she is also young and beautiful, everything! Maybe she lacks a bit of personality: her Ninetta was not particularly “alive”. On the other hand, the part itself is not among the most characterized written by Rossini, and also, she is pretty young.

Fernando Villabella (Alex Esposito, kneeling), Ninetta (Rosa Feola) and Giannetto (Edgardo Rocha)

A similar reaction I had for Teresa Iervolino, singing the role of Lucia, Ninetta’s employer and Giannetto’s mother. Wonderful voice, she also left me with the desire to hear her in a more substantial role. I will hear her as Orsini in Lucrezia Borgia at the Salzburg Festival in August and I can’t wait.

Giannetto was tenor Edgardo Rocha, who by now I have heard many times. My impression of him doesn’t change: he has a very good technique and coloratura, but the color of his voice is not particularly good. Still, I usually enjoy him, but I had the feeling that the other night in Milan his voice was not on its best behavior.

Pippo (Serena Malfi) and Giannetto (Edgardo Rocha)

Serena Malfi was singing the trouser role of Pippo; her voice is lacking in volume, but the emission and the color are beautiful. Also, I liked her acting, her interpretation of the young rascal. The duet with Feola in the second act was extremely moving.

Il Podestà was a veteran: Michele Pertusi, who I have heard and enjoyed many times in the belcanto repertoire, but he starts maybe to lose some edge. His voice is still very good, and he manages the coloratura, but in my opinion he’s losing the legato at times, and the sense of the musical phrase, as if the breath was not enough. This is a typical problem of aging singers, unfortunately. He of course has a lot of knowhow and knows how to get a character through, so in the end his performance was thoroughly enjoyable, but I found his voice quite different from a couple of years ago.

Fernando Villabella (Alex Esposito), Ninetta (Rosa Feola) and the Magpie (Francesca Alberti)

Alex Esposito was Fernando Villabella, Ninetta’s father. I was lucky enough to hear him in Semiramide in Munich, as Assur, last February, and here he confirmed the extremely good impression I got then. His coloratura is wonderful, and he masters the Rossini style perfectly. The voice is beautiful, the phrases always shaped with musical intelligence, he really left me with the desire to hear him as Il Podestà, who has a musically more interesting role. He is a bit young as Fernando Villabella (and would also be too young as Il Podestà) but that’s the only complaint I have.

A third bass completed the main cast: Paolo Bordogna as Fabrizio Vingradito, Giannetto’s father. His delivery was a bit weak, but his style is very on point and he is an absolute Rossini pro. His interpretation of the sympathetic country gentleman was very enjoyable.

The rest of the cast included Giovanni Romeo, Claudio Levantino, Matteo Mezzaro and Matteo Macchioni; they were all up to the task and contributed to a very successful performance.

La Gazza Ladra
Isacco, the merchant (Matteo Macchioni) and Ninetta (Rosa Feola)

And now, let’s talk about the boos at the premiere. As many of you might have heard, this performance was heavily booed on the first run: Riccardo Chailly in particular was targeted by a small, but very vocal, group of people booing and complaining. The intelligence I gathered is that this was a coordinated attack against Chailly, preordained by supporters of the conductor Daniele Gatti. The booing involved also most of the singers, including many who certainly did not deserve it. There was also a counter-protest during the opera, with other “loggionisti” complaining against the booing crowd, inviting them to go to the cemetery instead of coming into the theater (supposedly, to visit the dead singers that they so much cherish). Usual La Scala drama.


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