Hilarious And Not, This ‘Magpie’ Soars At Glimmerglass

Meg Gillentine in title role Thieving Magpie (Karli Cadel, Glimmerglass)
Brilliant as the thieving Magpie, Meg Gillentine flitted in and out of the action like a beloved if annoying pet.
(Production photos by Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival)
By Ken Keaton

COOPERSTOWN, N.Y. — Most opera lovers know Rossini’s La gazza ladra (The Thieving Magpie) from its overture alone. It is the twenty-first of his 39 operas, composed in 1817, after all his greatest masterpieces save Guillaume Tell, and immediately following La Cenerentola. I suspect its rarity is due to its uneasy combination of sparkling comedy and truly dark drama.

Giannetto (Michele Angelini) is in love and the town's in full feather in this bird-themed production.
Giannetto (Michele Angelini) is in love and Glimmerglass’ production is in full feather.

To be sure, Rossini did not label the piece opera buffa, but called it an opera semi-seria, a work that combines comic and tragic elements. The difficulty for the stage director is to decide just how comic to make the comic parts while allowing the dark moments — which include an attempted rape and the intended execution of an innocent victim for a truly petty crime — to be taken as seriously as they need. Rossini himself probably gave the matter little thought. He wrote the work in haste, according to his habit, and completed the overture just before the first performance, with Rossini forcibly locked in a room and throwing the pages to the parts copyist as he finished them.

So how did the Glimmerglass Festival’s production meet this challenge? Not perfectly, and I’m not sure it’s truly possible to reconcile the light and the dark in this work. But I can’t imagine it done much better. The comic parts were really comic, and the tragic parts oppressively dark.

The mayor (Musa Ngqungwana) traps Ninetta (Rachele Gilmore).
The mayor (Musa Ngqungwana) entraps Ninetta (Rachele Gilmore).

The singing was uniformly fine, and often excellent. Each of the singers met the bel canto demands with technical and stylistic flair. The standout was soprano Rachele Gilmore as Ninetta, the servant girl accused of stealing a fork and a spoon and sentenced to death. Gilmore not only managed all the technical challenges with aplomb and a gorgeous tone, but also created a real, sympathetic character. We cared about her plight.

Ninetta is beloved by the rich farmer she works for (Fabrizio Vingradito, played by young bass-baritone Calvin Griffin); Fabrizio’s son, Giannetto, is in love with her and wants to marry her. Michele Angelini turned Giannetto into something of a caricature, a vacuous tenor in love with his own voice. But it is a lovely voice, and he made Giannetto’s love for Ninetta seem genuine.

Another standout was Musa Ngqungwana as the mayor, Gottardo. While his singing was not as beautiful as Gilmore’s, his acting created a loathsome menace that made Scarpia seem benign. Gottardo also desires Ninetta, and he is willing to jail her with a death sentence — one that only he can commute — unless she submits to his desires. The confrontation between the two in the jail is chilling.

Meg Gillentine choreographed the production and played the Magpie.
Meg Gillentine choreographed the production and played the Magpie.

But the real gem was Meg Gillentine as the Magpie. Gillentine, who is also the choreographer for this production, is a wildly talented figure — dancer, singer, actor, makeup artist, jewelry designer —  and stunningly beautiful. Even before the event began, she flitted through the crowd, pecking at earrings, or anything bright, as if to steal it. During the overture, she danced behind the conductor, pecking at the double basses. The Magpie was a conspicuous presence particularly in the first act. She moved in and out of the action, interacting like a beloved if annoying pet. The performance was brilliant, just enough to delight and enhance, never so much as to distract.

The “bird” theme pervaded this production directed by Peter Kazaras, with sets and costumes designed by Myung Hee Cho. Each costume had feathers on some part of it, as if Papageno and Papagena’s children had all grown up and found work at Glimmerglass. As choreographer, Gillentine, who designed her own costume, perfected flicks of the head and wings, and all manner of little twitches that anyone who has pet birds would recognize. She also extended these mannerisms to movements by the rest of the cast. Only when a jury of owls twitched while handing down a death sentence did the approach seem inappropriate.

The lighting was effective, particularly the use of shadows, sometimes giving the impression that there were twice the number of cast members on the stage. Bright scenes glowed with warmth, and the jail scenes were profoundly oppressive. In the finale, when the supposedly stolen silverware was found in the Magpie’s nest just in time to stop Ninetta’s execution, a shower of rose petals descended from the sky, brilliantly lit with red so that everything glowed with pure joy. It was impossible not to weep with delight.

Jailer (Brad Raymond) cannot distract the lovers in a hilarious scene.
In a very funny scene, jailer (Brad Raymond, right) tries everything to distract the lovers.

One other notable scene must be mentioned. In the jail, Giannetto visits the condemned Ninetta, who has been released by the jailer so that the two can be together one last time, although he warns the pair that the mayor is returning, and it would be disastrous if Ninetta were found out of her cell. The lovers sing a long, lingering, repetitive duet, as is Rossini’s custom. Meanwhile the hapless jailer tries to get their attention, to separate them and return Ninetta to her cell, with no success at all, even when he does jumping jacks. It was one of the funniest scenes I’ve ever experienced.

If the Glimmerglass production didn’t fully reconcile some of the dramatic incongruities in Rossini’s work, it nonetheless was presented with such sparkle and humanity that it will live in my mind as one of my greatest opera-going experiences. Bravo to all!

Ken Keaton is Professor of Music for Florida Atlantic University, where he teaches historical musicology, music in general studies, and classical guitar. He is the author of the textbook The Mystery of Music, and reviews concerts for the Palm Beach Daily News and recordings for American Record Guide, in addition to his contributions to Classical Voice North America.

Ninetta’s execution prevented just in time, a shower of rose petals descend.
As Ninetta’s execution is prevented just in time, a joyful shower of rose petals descends at Glimmerglass.