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What is the Thieving Magpie?

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  • Written By: Mary Elizabeth
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 04 November 2016
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The Thieving Magpie is a melodrama in two acts by the Italian composer Gioachino Rossini, who is also known for The Barber of Seville, William Tell, and La Cenerentola. The Thieving Magpie was composed in 1817 with a libretto by Giovanni Gherardini, who drew on the 1815 play La pie voleuse by J. M. T. Badouin d’Aubigny and Louis-Charles Caigniez.

The premiere of The Thieving Magpie took place in Milan at the Teatro alla Scala on 31 May 1817. The overture to The Thieving Magpie is perhaps the most well-known part of the opera, popular for orchestral performance and noted for its striking beginning with several consecutive solo snare drum rolls.

The story of The Thieving Magpie involves a servant Ninetta who works for a farmer Fabrizio Vingradito and his wife Lucia. The couple is expecting the return of the their son, Giannetto, from the war, and while Fabrizio intends that he marry Ninetta, Lucia disapproves. She suspects Ninetta of being careless and unreliable. Giannetto is welcomed home, and a peddler and a vagrant both visit the farm. Ninetta recognizes the vagrant as her father, Fernando, who is a soldier who has gone AWOL after quarreling with his commander, fleeing in order to avoid execution.

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Ninetta attempts to conceal her father, but is interrupted by the mayor of the village, Gottardo, who is romantically interested in her, an interest she does not return. Ninetta tries to convince her father to leave, but he needs money to live on, and asks her to sell a piece of cutlery with his initials, FV, and put the money in a nearby tree for him to pick up. The town clerk shows up to report a deserter, and without his glasses, Gottardo asks Ninetta to read the description for him, and she colors it so that her father will not be recognized. Meanwhile, a magpie alights in the room and steals a spoon from the table. Lucia notices the spoon’s absence, and the peddler reports that Ninetta sold him a spoon labeled FV, on which evidence, Ninetta is arrested for theft and taken to prison.

In Act II of The Thieving Magpie, Ninetta is awaiting trial, and the kind warder Antonio allows Giannetto to visit her. The Mayor visits, too, but Ninetta repulses his advances. In order to get money to her father, she gives her gold cross to another worker for Fabrizio, Pippo, to sell, asking that she put the proceeds in the tree her father had designated. But Ninetta’s father, wondering where Ninetta is, has gone to the farmhouse, learned of her arrest, and plans to come to the trial.

The court finds Ninetta guilty, despite her father’s intervention, and by speaking up, he reveals his identity and the vindictive Mayor arrests him. A messenger from the King pardons Fernando, and — after Ninetta is taken to the scaffold — it is discovered that the thieving magpie is the culprit: it has been stealing and hiding items in the church tower. Ninetta is set free, and all except the Mayor celebrate.

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