The Bronx Opera’s
La Gazza Ladra – The Thieving Magpie
Reviewed by Joseph Conway
You just don’t see opera in popular culture these days. Outside of the occasionally mocking car commercial, opera is largely relegated to its own insular community. Yet even within that community, some operas are quite rare. Gioachino Rossini’s “The Thieving Magpie” is one such opera, featuring all the twists, turns, and gorgeous orchestration that keep the sadly neglected artistic medium alive. Sung entirely in English, This particular production translates surprisingly well, even if the translation serves to highlight how shamelessly repetitive the lyrics truly are.
The grand show begins with Rossini’s categorically brilliant overture, deftly performed by the sizeable orchestra and led by conductor Michael Spierman. The orchestra is the backbone of any performance, but doubly so in Rossini’s complex and powerful music. The Bronx Opera knows just how important live music is, and the level of depth and impact it brings is a wonderful experience.
Aurally, the production is an excellent showcase of superior vocals and precise timing… For the most part. Giannetto, played by John Calkins, was oddly squeaky for the shows lead tenor. I can’t help but feel that he was well aware of his suffering performance, as he held on to his hat for dear life throughout his time on stage. I likely wouldn’t have noticed if the rest of the cast wasn’t so stellar.
Speaking of the rest of the cast, the greatest standout performance of them all was undoubtedly that of the lecherous and downright oily mayor, Gottardo. Daniel Klein does a superb job of giving the mayor an almost cartoonish level of villainous ire, which I imagine would be required for any character that hands out the death penalty for petty theft. The unfortunate soul receiving the death penalty would be our dear lead soprano Ninetta, played by Jennifer Rossetti. Her character has all the depth of a kiddie pool, but that’s all that’s really needed when Ninetta spends the entire opera being sweet, innocent, and distraught.
The lighthearted feel of the show is maintained by Jack Anderson White’s warmly inebriated interpretation of Fabrizio, and by Juli Borst’s not-too-overbearing interpretation of Lucia. Serving as Ninetta’s employers, these two fine singers do an excellent job of setting the foundation for the entire rest of the show to build on. A special mention must be given to Ninetta’s father, Fernando, played exquisitely by Eric McKeever. The level of passion he injected into his role was only matched by his vocal precision and power.
As superb as the the vocals and instruments are, I can’t simply close my eyes to the shows visual aspects. The costumes are downright lazy at times, and lend the entire show an aggressively beige color palette. The lighting effects seem to be trying to evoke a “classically aged” look to the stage, but it only serves to drown everything in a bland aesthetic. The military “uniforms” on display were especially bad, and the soldiers filling them were often of a wildly inappropriate age for the rank-and-file. The ensemble as a whole just didn’t look terribly good. There were a few in the ensemble who obviously had fun with their roles and added little touches to make themselves unique, such as the woman who “gussied up” right before the return of the local war hero. However, most of them suffered from severely lacking economy of movement and a level of cheer and celebration that wouldn’t seem out of place at a funeral.
Still, these are ultimately minor issues in what is an otherwise excellent show. Indeed, every time I visit The Bronx Opera it seems to be significantly improved. The sets, for example, once detracted from the professional aire of the production. For The Thieving Magpie, however, set designer Jim Howard smartly went for a minimalist approach, highlighting the performance rather than the props. All in all, this is an excellent production with only a few nagging flaws. Rossini’s operas still feature what are, in my opinion, some of the most gorgeous orchestrations you’ll find in a theater. The Thieving Magpie is a rarely seen opera, rarer still to be sung entirely in English. At the end of the evening, this little birdie might just count your heart amongst the items it stole.