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La Gazza Ladra Overture (1817)
Gioachino Rossini (1792-1868)

 With the resounding success of his opera buffa Il barbiere di Siviglia (The Barber of Serville) in 1816, Rossini proved himself as the most successful composer of Italian comic opera. In fact, he wrote melodies so perfectly suitable for the Italian language that the philosopher Hegel claimed that Rossini’s music was “made for Italian throats, just as velvets and satins are made for ladies of fashion and pâtés de foie gras for gourmets.” Yet, the quintessential Italian composer felt threatened, around the time of composing tragi-comique La gazza ladra, by the increasing penchant for German symphonies among his Milanese audiences. With the new opera, Rossini wanted to “create a fine fiasco,” as he told his mother, and took a special care in its overture, abandoning his usual practice of recycling his own music. His orchestration for the overture of La gazza ladra is greater in scope, complexity, and dramatic projection than any of his previous overtures, or overtures by other composers until then, for that matter.

One important innovation for the overture was the prolonged drumroll that opens the music. A conservative music student was so appalled by the inclusion of military instruments into the opera score that he threatened to kill Rossini. The martial, and somewhat ominous, drumroll stemmed from Rossini’s careful reflection of the dramatic element of the opera. La gazza ladra (“The Thieving Magpie”) is a melodrama, or a tragi-comic, based on a true story of a poor French servant girl who was executed after being falsely accused of stealing silverware, which turned out to be taken by a magpie. Rossini tweaked the story to add elements of comedy and romance involving Ninetta, the drama’s heroine; Giannetto, Ninetta’s lover and the son of Ninetta’s master; and Podestà, a village mayor who makes improper advances toward Ninetta. Tragedy strikes when Ninetta, because of her father who has been accused of being a traitor to his commander during war and must remain in hiding, is unable to defend herself when blamed for stealing her mistress’s silver fork and is doomed to be hanged. Unlike the true story on which the opera is based, however, Ninetta is recused at the eleventh hour when it is revealed that a magpie had stolen the silver. The overture to La gazza ladra musically outlines the storyline in an episodic manner and in a sonata form, presenting the opera’s thematic materials in its brief development section, another rare practice for the time. After the triumphant opening and the impressive crescendo, all elements of drama unfolds, from the mischievous maneuvering of the magpie to the tenderness of the lovers to the breathless drive of Ninetta’s tribunal scene.

The first performance of La gazza ladra at La Scala on the last day of May 1817 was one of the greatest successes of the opera house. The overture’s unusual beginning, which had caused great suspicion and hostility toward Rossini, turned out to be so effective that Rossini (ever so filial) reported the success of this memorable opening to his parents at once: “I can’t remember a similar fanatismo. It starts with such a divine symphony that everybody is enchanted; they were intoxicated by two drums that, from the opposite parts of the theatre, responded to each other like an echo.” La gazza ladra, described as “the most single-minded triumph” by Rossini’s contemporary biographer Stendhal, remained the favorite production of the house throughout the season. Today, the overture stands as a hallmark curtain-raiser and a sure crowd-pleaser, its ingenious blending of an array of dramatic emotions in such a compact form still as affecting as it was in Rossini’s time.  

- Jung-Min Mina Lee, Duke University, Music Department