Well, this one’s for the birds!
Full disclosure. I love a production that is steeped in fanciful storytelling. My background as a former teacher of theatre-movement makes me a sucker for anthropomorphic exploration in character building. And I swoon for the bel canto vocal sound, its clear bell-like tones and the agility of the voices with their silvery-runs up and down the scales.
Moreover, I have been consistently impressed with both the opportunity and the quality of performance by the Young Artists at Glimmerglass, as so splendidly evidenced the night before in this year’s production of La Bohème.
So I was game for the avian-inspired fantasy of The Thieving Magpie. The pre-show visuals titillated. A dazzling blue head-plumed creature with a black-and-white magpie-inspired skirt and dramatic kohl-rimmed eyes strutted through the audience, inquisitively engaging with audience members and searching through their valuables. The set presented a beautiful double framing device of the stage, featuring delicate scrollwork that magically glowed with LED haloes.
Conductor Joseph Colaneri took up the baton and launched with surety into the Gioachino Rossini overture, instantly grabbing the audience’s attention in a spritely march (with its nod to Napoleon) and then launching into its well-known second theme.
During its course, the magpie moved from offstage, seizing a role as a second conductor then up onto the stage as soloist dancer. Miss Magpie danced through the entire overture. Some lovely avian gesticulations, but by the end, I’d already seen enough of the bird.
A key rule in dance or musical-theatre is to leave them wanting more. This rule, as so many others, went crashing by the wayside.
Don’t get me wrong, there was some beautiful singing. Rachele Gilmore as the young maid Ninetta, who is wrongly accused of stealing some silverware, has that clarity, sweetness and agility in her voice that is demanded in the role. She sang beautifully. Gilmore had to carry many numbers in the evening but really did not establish any arc in the development of her character or emotional variety to sustain the evening.
The best singing came in the second act, especially in Gilmore’s duet with Allegra De Vita, who really stood out in the pants role of Pippo, Ninetta’s servant sidekick. Theirs was a scene where emotional truth and beautiful blending of sound has all the presence that one lives for experiencing opera.
I also especially liked Michele Angelini in the role of Giannetto, the returning war hero and love interest of Ninetta. Angelini cuts a dashing figure on stage and has the voice to pull off leading men’s roles in the repertoire. He also has the remarkable talent to be able to push into light comedy, to make fun of his own and opera’s posing. From the moment he walked onstage in his white military uniform, albeit with feathers across his shoulders as epaulets, he embodied the grandiose puffery of paintings of Napoleon. Angelini proved physically and vocally powerful in his arias and terrific duets with Gilmore; he is indeed of heroic stuff, whose good looks, courage, and heart will conquer the world and get his girl.
The Thieving Magpie
2 hours, 45 minutes with 1 intermission
closes August 25, 2016
Details and tickets
Sadly, to my mind, much of the Avian-styled production and stage business eclipsed a lot of the singing and buried any charm in the story. It was a good exploratory idea which went somehow horribly wrong. Most importantly, the staging actually dragged down the feverish pitch of Rossini’s delightful score instead of riding the crest of it by the over-busy and somewhat self-conscious stage action.
Colaneri had shared a delicious anecdote in his preshow talk about how Rossini had landed only a few months before opening the production in Milan without having written a note of music and was handed a libretto. He furiously tackled the singers’ parts but, with only a few days to go, he was locked in a tower to finish the overture and commanded to throw down the score page-by-page or he himself would be thrown out the window. The threat worked, and it’s become an orchestral staple. Ah, the magic of theatre!
I wanted to feel that urgency as well as the joie de vivre of Rossini. That magic was missing in this production. And more besides.
There were a lot of plain no-nos. A certain soprano kept lifting up onto her toes when going for high notes. Several male singers suffered from stiff thumbs and hangman arms. One singer seemed to gargle her way through her singing. The Mayor seemed to be practicing scales on a Stairmaster. Choreography stole rather than gave focus to the central action.
Myung Hee Cho gave us a delightful look to her costumes and set design, but there was a dissonance between the design and staging. The strong lighting by Mark McCullough was finally confusing. As so many other choices, when the lights kept changing colors so often it left us in the audience thinking that we must be missing some critical insight. The fact that we noticed and were asking why rather than being led through emotion was a sign something was amiss.
The choreography was unremarkable with much generalized scurrying in time to the music tempi which was the equivalent of a paint-by-numbers work. Equally discouraging was trying to fathom why the soldiers were scurrying across the stage like mice in The Nutcracker. I missed one whole scene watching these same soldiers fluff up their shoulder feathers in endless repetition. Were these “birds on a wire” meant to be conjuring up a Rockette sequence or was this trying to say something portentous about our military establishment? The same soldiers curiously were found pawing through the jail “cage” of Nanetta. Military sexual harassment?
The staging on the other hand by Peter Kazaras left the characters mostly stranded in static relationship. When Nanetta responded to the Mayor’s unwelcome overtures with “O Monster,” she is standing woodenly not three feet away from him.
The opera seemed to demand a takeoff in flight of at least one Magpie. Instead, the turning plot point first lost the show’s momentum with a curtain descending before the climax. Then the key action was muffled. Sadly despite her gorgeous plumage and physical abilities, this bird seemed to prove flightless. As did the whole production.
The Thieving Magpie. Composed by Giaochino Rossini. Libretto by Giovanni Gherardini. Conducted by Joseph Colaneri. Stage Direction by Peter Kazaras. Sets and Costumes by Myung Hee Cho. Lighting by Mark McCullough. Featuring Allegra De Vita, Meg Gillentine, Leah Hawkins, Calvin Griffin, Rachele Gilmore, Brad Raymond, Michele Angelini, Dale Travis, Musa Ngqungwana, Simon Dwer, Thomas Shivone, and the Glimmerglass Festival Orchestra and Chorus. Produced by Glimmerglass Festival. Reviewed by Susan Galbraith.