Monday, January 14, 2013

La Gazza Ladra: Che giorno beato dobbiamo passar

A tragic history repeats itself as an irony-laced tragicomedy on the operatic stage: Rossini's 1817 La Gazza Ladra, although bookended with joyous choruses, contains fictions of potentially explosive power, set to music of often surprising complexity. A serving girl, Ninetta is unjustly accused of theft, libidinously desired by the local mayor, innocently charged with protecting her father from the consequences of deserting the army, and yearningly in love with the son of the family in whose household she works. With the aid of more than one deus ex machina, all of these intrigues have a satisfactory denouement, in striking contrast to the accusation and execution which inspired the opera. But there is more than a little Rossinian mockery at work, of social as well as operatic conventions. The drama hovers experimentally between genres. Melodramatic confessions and confrontations are misunderstood or interrupted, and conventions are gently satirized even as they are enacted. Although the soprano is decorously transferred from the embraces of a father to those of a husband, she is practically pushed into the latter's arms after she has asked to be reunited with the mezzo en travesti. The heroine's imprisonment is a mockery, the army is made to look absurd, and the local lord is spectacularly discomfited. After seeing Saturday's performance by the Bronx Opera, which emphasizes the piece's undeniable charm, I was left with two sources of surprise: that La Gazza Ladra isn't performed more often, and that Foucault never wrote an essay on it.
Beyond the famous overture, there's a great deal to enjoy in Rossini's whimsical score. In addition to fanfares and dance rhythms aplenty, there's an effective, dark-hued trial ensemble in which the chorus bemoans the miscarriage of justice. Its chief miscarrier, the podesta, gets some strikingly elegant music, including a good trio for him, Ninetta, and her father (who is disguised as a tramp at the time; it's a long story.) The trousered mezzo and the soprano get a rather lovely duet, and the inimitably Rossinian finale contains a very nice quintet. The orchestra, under Michael C. Haigler, gave a creditable and energetic performance, despite some imprecision. The staging was kept simple, with furniture moved around in different combinations to suggest various locations, and sheets of cloth in black and white recalling the magpie's plumage. The performance was given in English, which clearly worked well for the audience's engagement, despite the sometimes odd cadences of text, and occasional howlers. (Parenthetically, I must express admiration for any singer negotiating Rossinian patter and English consonants at the same time.)

There were several fine performances in small roles. Rishi Rane sang with sweet tone as an opportune messenger; as the peddler Isacco, Stuart Homan demonstrated a strong, bright tenor and expressive presence. As the plucky servant Pippo, Darcy Dunn was initially somewhat shrill, but improved as she warmed up. She was always fully engaged, and had good chemistry with Ninetta. Rossini brings a surprising and endearing realism to the portrayal of the affectionately bickering Fabrizio and Lucia, here sensitively portrayed by Jack Anderson White and Juli Borst. As Ninetta's father Fernando, Eric McKeever displayed a robust and pleasing baritone, which he handled adroitly; he was an audience favorite. The demanding part of Giannetto is not a very thankful one, requiring as it does a typical tenor temperament (though with levels of trust in the soprano that would stop several Verdi operas dead in their tracks), considerable coloratura facility, and a high D. John Calkins had a pleasant timbre, although his sound was somewhat unevenly produced. The role of Gottardo, the podesta, is a peculiar one in dramatic terms: he lusts after the soprano, but accepts his rebuff without becoming violent; in accusing her of theft, he sees a welcome opportunity to be revenged for his humiliation, but expresses remorse when it becomes apparent that she was in fact guiltless. Daniel Klein worked to resolve these incongruities by a dramatic turn reminiscent of the charmingly villainous Vincent Price. He sang with sensitive phrasing and impressive agility, as well as power, and admirable vocal consistency. Jennifer Rossetti, as Ninetta, sang with impressive stamina, if sometimes shrill tone, in a role that demanded pathos as well as coloratura facility. Charm may be La Gazza Ladra's most conspicuous asset; but the slyness beneath the charm is what held my interest. Further performances will take place next weekend.

Curtain call photos:
Isacco and the Jailer

Fabrizio and Lucia

Pippo and Giannetto

Fernando (McKeever)

Gottardo (Klein)

Ninetta (Rossetti)
Company bows

Cast and conductor

Last but not least... the magpie (and handler!)

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