In a letter to his mother in May 1817, Rossini remarked: I’m writing an opera The Thieving Magpie. The story’s been versified by a newcomer and as a consequence I’m being driven crazy; however, it’s a most beautiful subject…
The ‘beautiful subject’ was taken from an actual occurrence in which a French servant girl was convicted and hung for thefts of silverware later discovered to have been the work of a thieving magpie. The event had stimulated a substantial body of fiction.
Giovanni Gherardini’s libretto marries high-spirited adventure with prison scenes of unusual grimness and provides us with a range of characters, sympathetically, sentimentally and sometimes quirkily drawn. The story centres on a country community, subject to the king but dominated by its bustling, sadistic mayor, a kind of small-time Scarpia. At the heart of the community is the genial wine-bibbing tenant farmer, Fabrizio Vingradito, his wife, Lucia, and their son Gianetto, just returned from the wars. Gianetto plans to marry the demure servant girl, Ninetta, the heroine of the opera and an obvious variant of the Cinderella archetype in which Rossini was clearly interested. The discovery of the magpie’s nest of treasures and Ninetta’s last-minute reprieve make for a jubilant close. It brings to a triumphant conclusion an opera which celebrates the bonds of human affection and the resilience of the human spirit in the face o a disorderly world.
The scale on which Rossini was now building his music dramas allowed him to set Gherardini’s text in a manner grand enough to match the heightened expectations of even La Scala. The house itself reciprocated by sparing no expense for the production and the opera, premiered in Milan in 1817, was rapturously received.