A scene from the Bronx Opera Company’s production of Rossini’s
La Gazza Ladra
(Photo credit: Andrew Liebowitz/WrightGroupNY)
The Bronx Opera Company has courageously taken on Gioachino Rossini’s La Gazza Ladra, a work never staged in this country. La Gazza Ladra is known primarily through its hyperactive overture, a prime example of the famous “Rossini crescendo” (quickening tempi and gradually increasing volume). Ladra is a transitional work in Rossini’s oeuvre, between the opera buffa like The Barber of Seville and the heavy dramas like William Tell. In point of fact, Rossini calls it “a melodramma in two acts.” The title translates as “the thieving magpie,” the avian character that helps resolve the convoluted plot complications which involve the theft of silverware, an AWOL soldier and a lecherous mayor all sung in a smooth English translation by Benjamin Spierman who served as the stage director of this production.
Written in 1817, the libretto by Giovanni Gherardini, is based on a real-life incident in which a housemaid was unjustly executed for a theft for which she wasn’t guilty. In Rossini’s account Ninetta, the servant of Fabrizio Vingradito is accused of stealing a silver fork and spoon. Ninetta is in love with Fabrizio’s son Giannetto but this puts a damper on that relationship. Ninetta is visited by her father, Fernando Villabella, who has abandoned his army post due to conflict with a superior officer. He gives Ninetta a silver spoon and fork which she sells to provide him with survival money. The peddler, Isacco, who purchased these items, reveals this to the Vingradito family who assume it was their stolen silverware being sold. The fact that both sets of silverware share the initials F.V. further implicates poor Ninetta who, in addition to these travails, is wooed by the lecherous mayor Gottardo. When Ninetta is imprisoned, Gottardo lasciviously offers to help her in exchange for her favors. Add into this Fabrizio’s harridan wife Lucia other servants and townspeople and you get a sumptuous human palette put to music, which Rossini does with his usual panache.
Rossini has a Mozartian way with turning recitative sections in which the characters sing/speak into haunting duets, trios and ensembles. La Gazza Ladra is full of these breathtaking segues. Add to this arias and duets in which desperation and despair are expressed and this score rivals early Verdi with whom he overlapped for several decades. Hearing the Bronx Opera’s enthusiastically sung and skillfully acted performance, makes me wonder why this opera has not been seen here. And, the fact that the Bronx Opera has managed to assemble a double cast for all the leads makes it clear that there are definitely enough fine, stylish singers around who can do justice to this score. This company, now 46 years old, has managed to do what the larger troupes have failed to do.
Jennifer Moore was a lovely, fragile Ninetta, but one who eventually showed a spine of steel. She had the best music and sang beautifully. As her father Fernando, Jason Coffey was, perhaps, too young looking, but achieved a fatherly intimacy that was moving. Isaac Grier was the Fabrizio who was nudged along by his wife, but pulled things together at the end. As his wife, Lucia, Kerry Gotschall, was a shrew with a heart of gold. Her voice was easy to hear over the orchestra as was that of Luke Grooms who played her son Giannetto, a tenor who blasted through the thick arrangements. The slimy mayor was played by the big-voiced David Morrow who had the best acting technique of the cast. He never descended to mustache-twirling cliché. Leslie Tay as the peddler Isacco and Erik Bagger as the sympathetic jailer Antonio, made the most of their small parts.
The large orchestra, under the baton of the Bronx Opera stalwart Michael Spierman, made a rich Rossinian sound. I was particularly impressed by the French horns whose sound was large and accurate.
The set design by Jim Howard was simple: a stage bordered by vertical black and white curtains, filled with period furniture carried on and off by the cast. The costumes of Joan Greenhut and Maureen Klein were period perfect.
Stage director Benjamin Spierman kept the action going. He might have handled the chorus with more skill. They pretty much just stood around awkwardly and sang. The principals, however, related to each other while producing great music.
The Bronx Opera Company’s La Gazza Ladra (January 12th, 13th, 19th & 20th, 2013)
Lovenger Theatre @ Lehman College, Bronx, NY
Kaye Playhouse @ Hunter College, Manhattan
Information about upcoming performances: call 718-365-4209 or visit http://www.BronxOpera.org