Gioachino Rossini reached one of the first summits of his career as an operatic composer In 1817, with the premieres of Il barbiere di Siviglia and La Cenerentola the year before and that year respectively; these works crowned the early career of the 25 year old composer and are still immensely popular today.
Rossini was later to gain a reputation for laziness but nevertheless managed to compose nineteen operas over a period of seven years. His next opera, La gazza ladra, ‘The Thieving Magpie’ was set to a libretto by Giovanni Gherardini and was commissioned by the Teatro alla Scala in Milan. An innocent girl is condemned to death for having stolen a silver spoon; it becomes clear at the end of the opera that a magpie had stolen it and the girl is set free.
Milan at that time was still under Austrian rule and Rossini had learnt from bitter experience that the spoilt Milanese opera audiences tended to favour the German operatic style of the period. Italian opera at that time was firmly centred on the vocal line, whilst German opera also paid attention to harmony and therefore to the orchestral accompaniment. Rossini therefore took care that his orchestral score was prepared thoroughly and in detail and that his orchestra could easily fill the large theatre with sound. His work was rewarded: the premiere audience was ecstatic and even the German press reported that La gazza ladra was Rossini’s best non-comic work to date.
There were also some criticisms. It is said that a pupil of one of the orchestral players was very distressed about the presence of the snare drum in the opera, considering it vulgar and unworthy of the opera house. He felt so offended that he made a public declaration that Rossini should be executed in order to preserve the art of music from further corruption. A meeting between the two men was arranged at Rossini’s insistence, at which Rossini carefully explained to the hothead that the snare drum was necessary because of the role the gendarmes played in the opera: the snare drum was standard equipment for the gendarmerie at that time. If the young man persisted in his disapproval, then he would have to execute the libretto.
The snare drums — for the score requires two — are clearly to be heard in the overture to the opera and refer to the strong arm of the law as it appears later in the opera. Mariss Jansons has placed them at a distance from each other to maximise the effect of the approaching gendarme troop.
Translation: Peter Lockwood