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Ma La Legge Non Ode Consiglio: La Gazza Ladra in Frankfurt

By Singingscholar @singingscholar

Ma la legge non ode consiglio: La Gazza Ladra in Frankfurt

La Gazza Ladra and the theater of justice
Photo © Oper Frankfurt/ Wolfgang Runkel

I confess that, in trying to summarize the plot of La Gazza Ladra (Die Diebische Elster on Frankfurt's posters,) I've often fallen back on over-simplications: "A bird steals silverware; confusion ensues; star-crossed lovers live happily ever after, eventually." But although this is not inaccurate, it is misleading. The late-nineteenth-century assessment of Rossini as a composer of cheerful, even superficial music, has clung stubbornly to this rarely-performed work, the overture to which has been used as musical shorthand for sinister insouciance. The new production by David Alden, which I saw on Saturday, is designed to strip all that away, following instead a darker vision, realized well by singers and orchestra. Rossini created a happy ending for the opera, but petty and systematic tyrannies, offhand and official acts of oppression, characterize its unfolding. The composer used a ripped-from-the-headlines plot; the unjustly accused maidservant in the original episode was, in fact, executed. Rossini wrote at a time when much of Italy was under occupation, which would have influenced how the sinister brutality (and absurdity) of officialdom in the opera was perceived.

Ma la legge non ode consiglio: La Gazza Ladra in Frankfurt

Pippo and the Magpie
© Oper Frankfurt/Wolfgang Runkel

Alden sets his production approximately a century after the opera's 1817 premiere, using a predominantly black-to-white palette (significantly, mostly in shades of gray) and doing much with individual characterizations, as well as clever use of stagecraft. Everyone here is in danger of being crushed: the bourgeois couple, where the woman presides over her realm in brittle denial of the fact that her power is not absolute, and the man uses his wealth as a means to escape, wearing the clothes of a young and forward-thinking man, and drinking like a man with no future. There is Pippo, whose often inexplicable conduct is here motivated by the traumas he has suffered wandering a war-torn landscape, the magpie his only companion. The podestà is more acutely aware than anyone of how easily his iron rule could be toppled, how necessary his theater of power is. Then there are our young lovers, miraculous optimists: Ninetta who believes in the power of honesty to save her, who views the return of her lover and her father with nothing but joy; and Giannetto, who is as fearless in fighting for domestic justice as he is reputed to have been on the battlefield. The performance was notably well sung. This and the thoughtful, nuanced, and darkly humorous engagement with the opera's libretto, combined with--in close collaboration with--a biting, energetic reading of the score under the leadership of Henrik Nánási, helped me hear Rossini's music in new ways.
Frankfurt's orchestra was on especially fine form last night, from the opening, ominous drum rolls onwards. Nánási led with energy and precision, bringing out an impressively broad palette of orchestral color, and establishing a strong sense of forward drive. The excitement in the pit contributed much to the The chorus, whose contributions are so crucial, sang well and with good diction, and small roles well-filled. In the role of the opportunistic peddler Isacco, Nicky Spence created a surprisingly vivid characterization through physical comedy. Federico Sacchi, as the prosperous Fabrizio, sang with good use of text and fine agility, creating also a remarkably well-rounded performance of a vaguely lecherous, intensely anxious, rather pathetic man. Fabrizio's wife Lucia more effectively cloaks her own anxieties; the role was well-filled by mezzo Katarina Leoson, who acquitted herself nicely in an aria of repentance. Her good intentions may soon crumble under social pressure, but in the moment, she certainly believes in it. Bass-baritone Jonathan Lemalu showed a flexible and pleasingly resonant instrument as Fernando; what really made his performance stand out to me, though, was his remarkably intense acting as the aging and outraged, weary and traumatized soldier. Alexandra Kadurina's Pippo, alert, scarred by fear, and desperately lonely, remains cautiously at the edges of the household, warmed by the example of Ninetta's resilience. Kadurina has a supple, well-controlled mezzo, and she used phrasing very sensitively (I'd love to hear her as Sesto.)
As Gottardo, the podestà, Kihwan Sim was brilliantly sinister. Sim sang with consistently silky tone and impressive agility; comic and menacing by turns, he was never less than compelling. Francisco Brito, in the role of Giannetto, sang with a bright, strong tenor. His sound was less than effortless at the top of his range, but he sang with both commitment and consistency, and with admirable emotional engagement. Brito's characterization was very winsome; his reserve on returning home is almost palpable, but his efforts to overcome that reserve are also apparent. Unlike his parents, he is free of false pride; he has seen brutality, but is content to assert himself gently, to sit reading a (probably progressive) book, to gather Ninetta, again and again, into the circle of his arms, blazing a path towards social acceptance with his love. A touching detail of choreography: when, in the last act, he lies down next to Ninetta in the prison, he keeps his head propped on his elbows. The second time this happened, I realized that might be the angle necessary for a soldier to keep his head above water in a recently-dug ditch. Sophie Bevan I was hearing for the first time, though her name was familiar to me through the accolades she has garnered from awards committees and the UK-based opera Twittersphere. In the demanding central role of Ninetta, she was a radiant presence. Her vocal strength and expressivity were remarkable across her range. Bevan sang with lyrical elegance, but was also capable of sparkling sensuality in her joy, of fiery outbursts in her desperation. In the end, of course, the quiet resourcefulness of her allies wins out over the bullying of the authorities who have been so busy staging their own absolutism.

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