Rossini: The Thieving Magpie Opera in English
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Rossini: Gazza Ladra (La) (The Thieving Magpie) (Sung In English)
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This is a somewhat abridged English-language version of Rossini's 1817 La Gazza Ladra(about 35 minutes of uninteresting recitative and a couple of arias are eliminated, to no great loss--there are still 151 minutes of music here!). The recording is based on live performances which took place in England in 2002, and the singers, orchestra, chorus, and conductor cleary still have the feel of theater in their bones--there's great energy here. The work is a semi-seria opera, which is to say there are comic elements, and although it almost ends with the execution of an innocent girl, all is saved at the last moment. The opera contains some of Rossini's most impressive music, both orchestrally and vocally, and that's saying a great deal. Once you get past the fact that everyone is singing in English (some people don't like opera in anything but the original language, although Chandos has been releasing an extraordinary series of the classics in English), there's an enormous amount to enjoy: Majella Cullagh is lovely and believable as the wrongly-accused heroine, Ninetta, tenor Barry Banks seems to have no fear of fast or high music as her lover, Giannetto, Russell Smythe, as Ninetta's father, an army deserter for whom she's willing to risk her life, uses his handsome bass-baritone splendidly, and Christopher Purves's bass-baritone works well for the villainous town mayor. Everything goes right, and we have conductor David Parry to thank. Those who love Rossini or fine singing will have to own this, and the work is worth getting to know for all opera lovers. --Robert Levine
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(Thomas Schippers' or Scherchen's recordings of the overture at nearly twice the length are much more fun than Parry's rush through !) Majella Cullagh, while fully up to the demands of the difficult lead role of Ninetta technically, has a voice of somewhat limited color. Yet despite that, I was drawn into the drama (and comedy) in a way that few other recordings of Bel Canto operas provide. By the last twenty minutes or so, I was absolutely gripped by it, and Cullagh reaches real character involvement in the penultimate villagers' chorus, prayer and dead march.
I had totally forgotten that Rossini and librettist Gherardini's literary sources based themselves on a true story ! (Although the true life events ended tragically and Rossini and librettist provide a happy ending.) I became involved in the story in a way that rarely happens in an opera performance. Jeremy Sams' translation takes an effective and straightforward approach to the story, and despite the odd clumsy phrase, works very well.
There are very heavy cuts and some of the solo voices are miked too closely.
Despite the faults, if you listen honestly, you will be caught up in it from beginning to end.
I found the tempi in general to be fantastic, but I will admit that I am an up-tempo junkie so this recording suites my tastes just fine. That's not to say that there is no range from slow to moderate to fast but at least the tempi in this production avoids middle-ground heavy mush which is the worst place for an Italian opera to languish in. I will admit that there are a few points here and there where the vocalists cannot keep pace with the orchestration but that hardly warrants a failing grade.
The music has a vibrant (mostly due to it's up-tempo disposition), engaging, and tension filled quality that suits the passionate text very well. The translation is commendable considering it avoids cheesy "stage" dialogue and keeps the narrative tight and to the point.
The performers are all well suited for their roles, living in the middle to high ground of talent. Majella Cullagh (soprano) is adequate as Ninetta, Barry Banks' light tenor goes over well as Giannetto, while Russel Smythe (baritone) as the father of Ninetta is perfect in his range of expression from soothing to angry to distressed. Christopher Purves (baritone) is a capable Gottardo and Nerys Jones (mezzo-soprano) is an admirable Pippo due to her energized and youthful portrayal.
Overall, this has become one of my more favored recordings in my collection. I would recommend this recording to anyone who isn't turned off by translations or up-tempo drama.
Perhaps Chandos should have asked David Parry to study Vittorio Gui's Rossini recordings ("Il barbiere di Siviglia," "La Cenerentola," or "Le Comte Ory") to see how more moderate tempi allow line, shape, crisp ensemble, and, above all, music-making.