What is the Thieving Magpie?

The Thieving Magpie is a two-act melodrama Gioachino Rossini, best known for his works The Barber of Seville, William Tell, and La Cenerentola. The Thieving Magpie was written in 1817 with a libretto Giovanni Gherardini, based on J. M. T. Badouin d’Aubigny and Louis-Charles Caigniez’s 1815 play La pie voleuse.

The Thieving Magpie had its world premiere on May 31, 1817, at the Teatro alla Scala in Milan. The Thieving Magpie’s overture is perhaps the opera’s most well-known piece, popular for orchestral performance and notable for its striking beginning with several consecutive solo snare drum rolls.

The Thieving Magpie tells the story of Ninetta, a servant who works for farmer Fabrizio Vingradito and his wife Lucia. The couple is waiting for their son, Giannetto, to return from the war, and while Fabrizio wants him to marry Ninetta, Lucia opposes it. Ninetta, she believes, is irresponsible and untrustworthy. A peddler and a vagrant both come to the farm to greet Giannetto. Ninetta recognizes the vagrant as Fernando, her father, a soldier who has gone AWOL after a disagreement with his commander and is fleeing to avoid execution.

Ninetta tries to hide her father, but is interrupted Gottardo, the village mayor, who has a romantic interest in her, which she does not reciprocate. Ninetta tries to persuade her father to leave, but he requires financial assistance and asks her to sell a piece of cutlery bearing his initials, FV, and deposit the proceeds in a neartree for him to pick up. When the town clerk arrives to report a deserter, Gottardo asks Ninetta to read the description for him because he is missing his glasses, and she colors it so that her father is not recognized. In the meantime, a magpie enters the room and steals a spoon from the table. Ninetta is arrested for theft and taken to prison after Lucia notices the spoon is missing and the peddler reports that Ninetta sold him a spoon labeled FV.

Ninetta is awaiting trial in Act II of The Thieving Magpie, and the kind warder Antonio allows Giannetto to visit her. The Mayor also pays a visit, but Ninetta rejects his advances. She gives her gold cross to another worker for Fabrizio, Pippo, to sell in order to get money to her father, asking her to put the proceeds in the tree her father had designated. Ninetta’s father, however, has gone to the farmhouse, learned of Ninetta’s arrest, and plans to attend the trial.

Despite her father’s intervention, the court finds Ninetta guilty, and speaking up, he reveals his identity, prompting the vindictive Mayor to arrest him. After Ninetta is taken to the scaffold, a messenger from the King pardons Fernando, and it is discovered that the thieving magpie is the culprit: it has been stealing and hiding items in the church tower. Except for the Mayor, Ninetta is set free, and everyone rejoices.