Plenty of great opera overtures have eventually become far better known than the dramas they introduce. In some cases that disparity is easy to understand, while in others it's a bit of a mystery.
On one side of that divide, take the overture to Glinka's opera Ruslan and Lyudmila. It's a rollicking, orchestral showcase that's a sure-fire hit in the concert hall. Yet the opera itself, with its labyrinthine story, is often a conundrum to audiences not steeped in the Russian culture and folklore that spawned the piece. The overture, which sums up the action quite nicely in just a few minutes, makes for a more accessible alternative -- leaving the opera neglected by comparison.
Conversely, there's a symphonic favorite by Rossini: the overture to his opera La Gazza Ladra -- The Thieving Magpie. Its unique opening, featuring dueling snare drums, gives way to a score with a little bit of everything, from silky lyricism to frolicsome virtuosity. Not surprisingly, it has long been irresistible to orchestras, conductors and concert audiences.
Like Glinka's curtain-raiser, Rossini's Thieving Magpie overture launches an opera that's something of a rarity in the world's theaters. In this instance, though, the drama has a great deal that recommends it to any opera lover, including a taught story of young love, family loyalty and the bonds of friendship -- and a score graced by some of Rossini's most outstanding music.
Yet somehow, La Gazza Ladra has never reached the levels of popularity achieved by Rossini's genuine hits, including The Barber of Seville, Tancredi and L'italiana in Algeri.
At least part of the problem may stem from where the piece falls along opera's dramatic spectrum. Technically, it occupies a category of Italian opera known as opera semiseria. That's a term that tends to mean pretty much what it sounds like: "semi-serious opera." That is, a work that's either a comic opera with serious elements, or a serious opera with comic elements, depending on your perspective.
La Gazza Ladra sustains such a fine balance between funny and tragic that it's often confoundingly difficult to pin down -- and perhaps that's part of why we don't hear it more often.
Yet the trouble may also lie in our own expectations. It could be we're so accustomed to Rossini's operas being either hilarious comedies or tragic dramas, that a fence-sitter such as La Gazza Ladra is simply difficult to take in.
It shouldn't be. However the opera is defined, it hardly takes a primer to identify with its rich story of tender romance, unjust persecution, shared outrage and ultimate vindication. And, while it's among Rossini's longer operas, the music throughout sustains the same level of brilliance established in the overture that gets it all started.
On World of Opera, host Lisa Simeone presents The Thieving Magpie from the 2015 Rossini Opera Festival in Pesaro, Italy, the composer's hometown. The stars are soprano Nino Machaidze and tenor René Barbera, in a production led by conductor Donato Renzetti.