The Thieving Magpie
Gioachino Rossini, with text by Giovanni Gherardini, in a new translation by Jeremy Sams
Theatre Royal, Newcastle, and touring
Review by Peter Lathan
The story on which The Thieving Magpie is based is true, of a servant girl who was executed for stealing from her master and, after the execution, it was discovered that it was, in fact, a magpie which was to blame. The event gave rise to many fictional accounts, including a mélodrame du boulevard which was staged in Paris two years before Rossini's opera had its premiere in Milan. But Rossini takes the story beyond simple melodrama, even though, in its early stages, one is almost led to expect that that is how it will turn out.
From the simple country celebrations for the return of Giannetto Vingradito from the wars, to the bleakness of the attempted seduction of Giannetto's lover Ninetta by the Mayor (a lovely villainous performance by Robert Poulton) to her being sentenced to death and on to the almost too late reprieve of both Ninetta and her father, the deserter Fernando, we have all the ingredients of a melodrama but Gherardini's telling of the story and Rossini's music lift the piece into another realm altogether.
Opera North have chosen to go for a straightforward telling of the tale, with no attempt at any form of updating and this was definitely the right decision. For me Rossini's bel canto style, the structure of his work and, indeed, the story itself (or the stories themselves, for I think this applies as much to Barber, La Cenerentola and the rest as much as to Magpie) need a "traditional" staging.
The cast is excellent, with the women being particularly stong. Mary Hegarty's Ninetta moved effortlessly from simple unaffected joy through anger and then despair to an almost disbelieving and ennervating relief. Her voice is clear as a bell and her phrasing perfect. Bel canto can sound a trifle odd in English - after all, it is very much based on the Italian language - but she made it sound perfectly natural.
Anne Marie Gibbons as Pippo (the "breeches part") had the adolescent male swagger off to a T and her prison scene with Ninetta was particularly impressive. And if you ever hear anyone saying that opera singers don't act, point them in the direction of Claire Williams as Lucia, Giannetto's suspicious and fiercely protective mother. Whether in the background and silent or in the forefront singing solo or with others, she never stopped acting for a moment. Frankly, this was a performance which wouldn't have been out of place at the RSC!
I've already mentioned Robert Poulton's Mayor; surely there were times when he must have wanted some mustachios to twirl! I certainly wanted him to. He was a wonderfully melodramatic villain. Dean Robinson pleased as the hen-pecked Fabrizio, Lucia's husband, and Jonathan Best, as Ninetta's father Fernando, was impressive when on the run and particularly so when he gave himself up in the hope of saving his daughter, but unfortunately lacked the relief and lightness which should have come at the end.
Rossini does Giannetto no favours. He is undoubtedly the shallowest of the main characters, in some ways a bit of a cypher, so Ashley Catling didn't have much to work on, but he sang well and did what he had to do.
As for the Chorus - they were great! They always seem to be thoroughly in character and to be enjoying themselves. The celebratory scenes at the beginning and end were full of life and verve, and in the courtroom scene and the march to the scaffold they were really quite chilling.
A final mention for the orchestra: they are really very good and their playing of the overture- which, let us be honest, could easily be a bit hackneyed - was fresh and alive.
The Northern Opera season at the Theatre Royal runs until 23rd April, after which they go on to the Grand Opera House, Belfast (26th - 30th April), with the same programme.
Opera North dedicate this season at the Theatre Royal, Newcastle, to the memory of Peter Sarah, the theatre's chief executive, who died on 8th April.