Rossini Opera Festival 2007
If ever there was an opera production that put the words “cultural divide” in neon lights, the Rossini Opera Festival’s 2007 production of La Gazza Ladra is it. The striking differences in opinions between Italian opera critics and their English counterparts were planted front and center.
These diverse viewpoints were directly linked to Damiano Michieletto’s direction and Paolo Fantin’s sets whose eagerness to exceed the textual boundaries of Rossini’s most respected opera semiseria ignited the debate. Hugh Canning’s comments in Opera, November, 2007, boiled over the operatic cauldron in total disapprobation. “They (ROF) could also hardly have done worse than engage a young director with ‘ideas’ about La Gazza Ladra, staged as an immigrant’s nightmare…The genius responsible for transforming Rossini’s domestic semiseria into a searing indictment of a police state and implacable judiciary was Damiano Michieletto.” Even as late as November, 2008, David Blewitt in Opera referred to ROF’s new productions in 2007, as, “two concept productions of unmitigated awfulness,” — the other disappointment being Rossini’s Otello.
Stephen Hastings’s perspective in Opera News November, 2007, touched on some of the ideas Italian critics voiced about the work. “The director, Damiano Michieletto, aided by scenographer Paolo Fantin, proved…adept at matching sound and movement, offering a number of striking visual effects (including a stage flooded by rain in Act 11).” In fact, the Italian critics were completely enamored by Michieletto’s and Fantin’s approach which cast a darker hue over the opera’s story than past productions had done.
Claudio Salvi, in Il Messaggero, on August 12th, 2007, said about the first performance, “In a festival which is now basing all its reason for being on modern directors and on young talented casts, the traditionalists have found it difficult to integrate their melomanical beliefs with Damiano Michieletto’s innovative and original direction, and for Pesaro’s new course of action.” Yet, Salvi believed this dreamlike interpretation of La Gazza Ladra worthy of ROF’s fame and as one of the best productions seen at ROF in the last few years. For having bet on this young director and his talented cast, this production represents a kind of awakening from the dark and shows a good dose of courage.
Ivana Baldassarri in the Il Resto del Carlino , on August 12, 2007, noted two significant changes to the plot: one in the opera’s locale from country inn to luxury hotel and the other, transforming the thieving magpie into a young girl who in a bad dream becomes the thief. But the story on the stage still follows the same outline as in Giovanni Carli Ballola’s program notes. “Ninetta, a girl from a good, but poor family has to work as a servant in a rich tenant farmer’s home. She is unjustly accused of stealing and then selling a silver spoon. The mistake is compounded by the hated Podestà (the chief magistrate) who persecutes the girl for rejecting his amorous advances. Ninetta really has sold, to an old-clothed man, a silver spoon given to her by her father, an army deserter in need of money. Tried and condemned to death, Ninetta is saved at the last minute by the chance discovery of the missing spoon in the magpie’s nest.”
In an interview with Il Resto Del Carlino,on August 10, 2007, Michieletto explained to writer Maria Rita Tonti, his reasons for his directorial choices. “Because La Gazza, a complex opera, belongs to the semiserio genre which mixes happy moments with dramatic ones, I thought to find a non-rhetorical way of telling the story that would give a narrative value to the plot while the libretto would not follow the music in a simple and light manner.” He said the idea came to him while reflecting on the Alice In Wonderland fable in which Alice follows the rabbit without asking any questons and finds herself involuntarily involved in a dramatically fearful situation, a necessary ingredient in all fairy tales. In the story’s most terrible moment when the Queen of Hearts is going to kill her, Alice wakes up from the nightmare. The director used this idea, turning the magpie into the personification of a young girl. As the girl falls asleep, she begins to dream, becoming the protagonist in a trip that initially seems wondrous and playful. She finds, however, she is the one blamed for stealing the cutlery and is about to be shot when she suddenly wakes up bringing the opera to an end. What is not imaginary is that Rossini and librettist, Giovanni Gherardini based their work on a true incident where a young girl was put to death for stealing cutlery.
It is Michieletto’s approach to the story that fascinated the Italians and ultimately one they believed in wholeheartedly. The result was they gave the director, in May of 2008, the Franco Abbiati prize for his work at the festival. The prize, named in memory of one of Italy’s greatest music critics, is one of the most prestigious in Italian music circles. Then the French magazine, Diapason, awarded the DVD of La Gazza Ladra, the Diapason d’or as the best disc for the months of July-August.
Rossini Opera Festival
Fortunately, we now have the DVD of ROF’s La Gazza Ladra which opera lovers can judge the merits for themselves. As for the physical production, Fantin, costume designer Carla Teti, and light designer Mark Truebridge compliment Michieletto’s emphasis on the darker side of the opera. The deep reds that accompany the stark white lighting are also reflected in the costumes. In addition to the black and drab brown costumes for Michele Pertusi’s malevolent Podestà and Alex Esposito’s Fernando, the eerie black robes of the judges indicated no mercy for Ninetta’s plight. Michieletto starts out with Sandhya Nagaraja playing a game with small white cylinders that set designer Fantin used throughout the opera, changing their size and stage position to accentuate the opera’s dramatic moments. In the opening scene of Act Two, they resembled sewer pipes sopping in water, representing Ninetta’s jail where Giannetto, her intended, Pippo, her trusted friend and the licentious Podestà come to visit her. No doubt, it is Michieletto’s stark point of view which caused all the critical dissension.
But it is the wonderful musical preparation and execution that makes this performance shine. Lü Jia’s conducting and devotion to his singers fit ROF’s dedication to Rossini’s operas like a glove to hand. Mariola Cantarero’s expressed Ninetta’s nobility and pathos through stellar vocal means. Michele Pertusi’s interpretation might have struck some as too thuggish but his vocal prowess made the role complete. Alex Esposito committed acting and singing as Ninetta’s devoted father was a perfect counterpoint to Pertusi’s bully. These two performers gave the opera its emotional truth. Dmitry Korchak’s Giannetto showed his character’s concern for his beloved, but the upper voice lacked the necesary security. At times, Manuela Custer’s middle voice proved clumsy, but in the second act duet, “E ben, per mia memoria,” her Pippo melded beautifully with Cantarero’s Ninetta. Paolo Bordogna as Fabrizio, Kleopatra Papatheologou as Lucia, Stefan Cifoletti as Isacco and Cosimo Panozzo as Antonio rounded out the cast giving first class interpretations to their smaller roles showing the depth of this production’s musicality.