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Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Words of a Feather

PERFORMING IN AN OPERA CAN’T BE EASY for any of the participants, but my vote for the hardest-working cast member in Rossini’s “Thieving Magpie,” receiving what amounts to its American premiere at the Glimmerglass Festival, is choreographer Meg Gillentine. As the title character, she moved among the audience gathered on the pleasant lawn before the show, never breaking from her avian persona, and she helped music director Joseph Colaneri conduct the overture (not that he needed it) before she took her place in an ornate onstage cage as the opera proper began. Her costume and makeup certainly helped reinforce her birdlike look, but her eyes had the fiery intensity of one who’s up to no good.

Allegra De Vita as Pippo and Rachele Gilmore as Ninetta
Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival
“The Thieving Magpie” is rarely performed – the company believes this to be its first Italian-language production in this country – and, compared to Rossini’s greatest hits, it’s pretty lightweight. But it’s nonetheless a charmingly accomplished piece that rewards excellent singers with fabulous solos and ensemble work.

The tale is slight. Ninetta, a servant, is accused of stealing silverware. Although she and her employers’ son, Giannetto, plan to marry, she is to be imprisoned. Despite the possibility of a reprieve, she thwarts the advances of the evil Mayor, which means she’ll be put to death. This kind of story, termed opera semiseria, seems to confound a modern audience. It’s the theatrical version of mixing savory and sweet, a practice more common in a 19th-century dish than in contemporary fare.

But listen to the arias Rossini created! Soprano Rachele Gilmore returns as Ninetta (she was last here two seasons ago in “Ariadne”) and puts a powerhouse voice and endless charm to the task of delivering a cavatina like “Di piacer mi balza il cor” (reminiscent of “Una voce poco fa,” from “Barber of Seville”) with sublime virtuosity and complete innocence of character. Likewise, in a change of pace characteristic of this opera, her Act Two lament “Deh, tu reggi in tal memento.” 

The voices throughout this production are superb, with special commendation for bass-baritone Dale Travis, who sings the role of Ninetta’s fugitive father (and shares with her the endearing duet “Come frenar il pianto”) – a huge contrast with the double role he sings in the concurrent production of “La bohème.”

In fact, the low voices fare well here, as Musa Ngqungwana, as The Mayor, proves. He’s the harassing villain, the Roger Ailes of this piece, but gets his own comic moments like the buffo aria “Il mio piano è preparato.”

L to R: Rachele Gilmore, Simon Dyer, Musa Ngqungwana,
Calvin Griffin, Michele Angelini, and Leah Hawkins.

Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival
Tenor Michele Angelini, as Giannetto, doesn’t get big plot moments – they go to mezzo-soprano Allegra De Vita, as the servant Pippo – but Rossini knows how to distribute vocal moments to everyone. And the chorus gets to shine both in the big Act One finale and in the lead-up to what we fear will be Ninetta’s execution.

What made the production less than satisfying throughout was director Peter Kazaras’s decision to turn most of the cast into some manner of bird. It defies logic, given that it’s a bird that causes the plot mischief, underscoring the serio-comic nature of the piece by belonging to a different species, and it offers the temptation to impose cheap humor at the expense of what reality the opera should inhabit.

Thus, costuming included gratuitous feathers and crests, and many of the singers were instructed to move in birdlike dips and jerks. It grew tiresome. And it very much got in the way of the dramatic and sentimental moments that are meant to contrast with the opera’s comic moments. Kazaras did a wonderful job directing “An American Tragedy” two seasons ago, but here succumbed to the ever-beckoning temptation to “improve” what’s reckoned as funny without fully understanding the structure of Rossini’s humor.

As much as I disliked Myung Lee Cho’s costumes, I loved her set, which gave a woodland framing to the stage and featured a couple of moveable pieces that did a tremendous amount of work. And the lighting, by Mark McCullough, nicely suited the many changes of mood.

The “Thieving Magpie” overture has become well known as a stand-alone piece; it turns out that there’s plenty more work for the orchestra to do in this opera and they and conductor Colaneri did it brilliantly. The busy Gillentine was all the bird this work requires: if only the director had found courage enough to keep it that way!

The Thieving Magpie
Music by Gioachino Rossini; libretto by Giovanni Gherardini
Conducted by Joseph Colaneri
Directed by Peter Kazaras
The Glimmerglass Festival, July 17, 2016
(The production continues through August 25)

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