La gazza ladra, melodramma in two acts to a libretto by Giovanni Gherardini, was first produced at the Teatro alla Scala on 31 May 1817. The singers at the first performances were Vincenzo Botticelli (Fabrizio), Marietta Castiglioni (Lucia), Savino Monelli (Giannetto), Teresa Giorgi-Belloc (Ninetta), Filippo Galli (Fernando), Antonio Ambrosi (Gottardo, il podestà), Teresa Gallianis (Pippo), Francesco Biscottini (Isacco), Paolo Rossignoli (Giorgio) and Alessandro de Angeli (Ernesto).
The story derives from La pie voleuse by D’Aubigny and Caigniez. Rossini made two perfomances of the opera: Pesaro, opening of the Nuovo Teatro (1818) and Naples, Teatro del Fondo (1819).
The Great Courtyard of Fabrizio’s House
The members of the household are joined by their neighbours from the village to celebrate the return home of Giannetto, son of the well-to-do tenant farmer Fabrizio Vingradito, who is coming home from the wars; whilst the table is being set everyone is amused to hear a magpie, from its cage, repeatedly call out the name of Pippo, a young peasant lad in Fabrizio’s service. After having sung the praises of wine, Fabrizio confides in his wife, Lucia, that he would like to see their son, Giannetto, married to Ninetta, a servant-girl of theirs. Lucia, however, is not at all disposed to favour the poor girl; on the contrary, she complains that the girl has her head in the clouds and that recently she has even managed to mislay a silver fork.
Whilst everyone is inside the house, preparing the party, Ninetta, delighted that her beloved Giannetto is coming home, comes down the hillside and is paternally greeted by Fabrizio; they are interrupted by Lucia, who is still vexed about the disappearance of her spoon. The three go off, leaving the stage to Isacco, the village merchant and moneylender, who enters the courtyard to peddle his wares, but meets only Pippo who cordially invites him to be off. Now the stage fills up again Giannetto, who warmly embraces Ninetta, whilst Pippo sings a drinking song. Giannetto goes off whit his parents to visit a sick uncle, and Ninetta is left behind alone to look after the house. She is joined by a man dressed in rags whom she at once recognizes as her poor father, Fernando Villabella: after many years as a regular soldier he has been forced to run away from his regiment, having been condemned to death after a quarrel whit his captain. To avoid recognition Fernando wraps himself up in his rags again upon the arrival of Gottardo, the Podestà of the village, who has taken a fancy to Ninetta. The Podestà now renews his amorous overtures to Ninetta, but she repulses him; Fernando, whom the Podestà believes to be a poor wayfarer, stays in a corner pretending to be asleep. An urgent message arrives for the Podestà, who is forced to look for his spectacles; Ninetta takes advantage of this respite to comfort her father, who gives her some silver cutlery and asks her to sell it for him, and to hide the proceeds – which will help him to escape – under a chestnut tree on the edge of the wood. Meanwhile, since the Podestà, cannot find his spectacles, Ninetta is called upon to read out the document: it turns out to be an order to arrest her father for the crime of desertion. However, in order to turn the inquiry off the right track, Ninetta reads out a completely false description of the wanted man. When Fernando observes that the Podestà is again molesting Ninetta with his unwelcome attentions, he cannot restrain himself any longer and sends the old magistrate off packing, but he goes away muttering dark threats. Whilst the scene is deserted, the Magpie flies out of its cage, onto the table and steals a spoon.
A ground-floor room in Fabrizio’s house
Ninetta sells her father’s cutlery to Isacco, but as she is about to go and leave the money under the chestnut tree she is delayed by the return of her employers, accompanied by the Podestà, who congratulates Giannetto upon his military successes. Whilst setting the table Lucia discovers that now a silver spoon is missing. Despite Giannetto’s protests the Podestà instantly opens an inquiry, discovering at once that Ninetta is the daughter of the deserter that he is meant to catch and that she has a sum of money about her that she is unable to account for. Pippo, who has known all along that Ninetta has sold a spoon to Isacco, inadvertently reveals this to the Podestà, who, anxious to be revenged for the insults to his dignity, summons the usurer, who testifies that he has bought a spoon from the girl, bearing the initials F.V. engraved upon it. Everyone is now convinced that this cutlery was the property of Fabrizio Vingradito, whereas Ninetta, to protect her father, dares not reveal that the initials really stand for Fernando Villabella. Amidst the general dismay, the Podestà accuses Ninetta of theft and orders her to be led away to prison.
A hall in the prison
Antonio, the gaoler, whose heart has beem touched by the poor servant-girl’s plight, lets Ninetta out of her cell to enjoy the daylight. She begs him to call Pippo, to whom she has something to say. Meanwhile Giannetto, distraught by the idea of the possible guilt of Ninetta, manages to obtain an interview with her from the gaoler: Ninetta declares that she loves him and that she is innocent of the crime imputed to her, but she also states that she will not exculpate herself before the Tribunal because she wishes to protect someone to whom fate has already been severe. In fact, the girl refuses to compromise her father by explaining all the facts in the case. Giannetto goes away, promising to do everything in his power to save her. Left to herself, Ninetta is now joined by the Podestà, who once more pays court to her, promising to set her free if she will accept his love. When she refuses him for the umpteenth time the Podestà goes away making fresh threats. Drum-rolls announce the preparations for the trial. Pippo now comes in; hoping to save her father, Ninetta begs him to lend her three scudi, and hide them for her under the appointed chestnut tree before nightfall. Then, having a foreboding that she will be found guilty, Ninetta gives him a ring for Giannetto and bids Pippo a fond and tearful farewell.
A ground floor room in Fabrizio’s house
Lucia, who has always believed Ninetta guilty, is assailed by doubts and remorse. She comes across Fernando, who is distraught at not having found the money for his escape under the chestnut tree; when Lucia tells him that Ninetta has been unjustly imprisoned, Fernando decides to give himself up in the hopes of saving her.
The Hall of Judgment
The judges pronounce the death sentence upon Ninetta and nothing is gained by Giannetto when he intervenes, trying to persuade her to reveal her secret. Now Fernando makes his way through the crowd and gives himself up, imploring the court to save his daughter. His intervention, however, has come too late: the sentence, once pronounced, cannot be revoked. Ninetta is led off to the scaffold, Fernando to prison.
The village square
Lucia comes out of the church where she has been praying for Ninetta’s safety. Ernesto, a soldier comrade and friend of Fernando, now arrives in the deserted square: he wishes to inform the Podestà that the King has granted Fernando pardon and freedom. He meets Pippo, who has just left the three scudi under the chestnut tree, and who shows him the way to the Podestà’s house. Pippo counts over his remaining money and, when Antonio joins him and the two are chatting together, before their very eyes the Magpie swoops down and steals a coin from Pippo’s hand, flying off to the church tower with it. As they run off in pursuit, the procession accompanying Ninetta to execution, passes through the square. However, Pippo and Antonio have now discovered the stolen cutlery in the bell tower, and everyone can see that the Magpie is the real culprit. Ninetta’s innocence has been proved, and whilst the church bells ring out a joyous refrain, Giannetto and Fabrizio run off to stop the execution. Everyone rushes to the square at the sound of the bells, and they are joined by the Podestà. Suddenly rifle fire is heard: everyone fears that the execution has taken place, but instead cries of joy hail the arrival of a triumphal car, filled with flower, bearing Ninetta. The rifles had been fired in the air as a joyful salute. However, Ninetta is fearful for the fate of her father, still in prison, but thanks to Ernesto, he has been freed and now embraces his daughter. Before the eyes of the astonished Podestà, Lucia joins together the hands of Ninetta and Giannetto, amidst the general rejoicing.