Everyone knows the overture to La gazza ladra. It’s the one that begins with a pair of snare drums snarling across opposite sides of the orchestra which then launches into a pompous military march. Rossini’s opera itself is rarely performed. It’s 200 years since the 1817 premiere at La Scala, where it clocked up a respectable 150 performances to 1841, but nothing since. High time then for a new production, entrusted to film director Gabriele Salvatores who delivers a traditional – if fussy – staging, but it was music director Riccardo Chailly, a respected Rossinian, who drew boos at the curtain call.

The first catcalls came after the overture, aimed – I had suspected – at the theatrical rather than the musical direction. Puppets from the Milanese Carlo Colla and Sons company briefly acted out the story in a miniature theatre before acrobat Francesca Alberti (our magpie) dangled, tumbled and swooped on a rope. The ovation after this set piece was extended as the majority of the audience, trying to drown the booing, applauded louder and longer, only for the naysayers to rally. Reasons for the objections were puzzling. It’s not as if having the magpie performed by an acrobat hasn’t been done before (Damiano Michieletto’s witty staging in Pesaro) and the puppetry was pleasant, if unnecessary, especially the repeated appearances through the production, as if to justify the company’s fee. It’s only when Chailly took his bow that it dawned on me that the booing was for him. Yes, the overture was rumbustious, but there was plenty of froth to its witty middle section, the piccolo chuckling merrily. Throughout the evening, Chailly drew fine playing from his orchestra, especially as our heroine, Ninetta, is taken to her execution in a tumbril, hollow drums rattling like Berlioz’s March to the Scaffold in his Symphonie fantastique (composed 13 years after Gazza). There was a little lack of coordination between pit and stage in some ensembles, but nothing that won’t iron out later in the run. James Vaughan provided witty fortepiano accompaniment to recitatives. The loggionisti remain a mysterious bunch.

Despite the jocularity heard in the overture once the famous march fades away, La gazza isn’t one of Rossini’s comedies. There are buffo elements to some characters, but this is opera semiseria. The plot is straightforward. Ninetta, a serving girl at the home of kindly rich farmer Fabrizio Vingradito, is accused of stealing a silver spoon, complicated by the fact that a different spoon she has sold to a pedlar bears the same initials as Fabrizio as it was given to her to sell by her father (Fernando Villabella), who is on the run as a deserter from the army. Ninetta is brought to trial, found guilty and sentenced to death – a harsh punishment for a crime the police probably wouldn’t even investigate today. In the nick of time, her execution is stayed when young peasant Pippo discovers that the spoon was pinched, along with other shiny goods, by a magpie, which had hidden them in her nest. General rejoicing ensues as Ninetta is now free to marry Fabrizio’s son, Giannetto, thwarting the slimy advances of the village mayor.

In a traditional staging, Salvatores’ one key idea is having the magpie manipulate events. The setting is the 19th century, the dawn of the industrial age, so gentlemen are top-hatted and there are giant pulleys and cogs which the magpie turns to drop in theatre scenery. Otherwise, the direction is bland, Salvatores having little idea what to do with the chorus, but at least he tells the story straight.

Vocally, it was a good evening. What a joy to hear a nearly all-Italian cast (Uruguyan Edgardo Rocha the sole exception) revel is this attractive score. Not all the voices boast star quality but they were all, at least, up to the task. Contrary to the reception given by the loggionisti, Rosa Feola and Serena Malfi were my picks of the cast. Feola had bags of charm and pristine fioritura as Ninetta, while Malfi’s Pippo, a mezzo trouser role, was gorgeously sung, with rich plum tones to her lower register. Their affecting Act 2 duet, as Ninetta takes the cross from her neck and gives it to Pippo, was beautiful.

As Giannetto, Rocha doesn’t have the most glamorous sound, but he sang stylishly. The three bass-baritones were all effective: Paolo Bordogna lacks a little vocal ‘fatness’ but is well versed in buffo style as Fabrizio; Michele Pertusi’s predatory podestà, swathed in a ragged black cloak like a creepy Count Dracula, was on splendid form, his rounded, warm bass-baritone pouring forth like olive oil; best of the trio was Alex Esposito as Fernando, his dark voice well-projected. Teresa Iervolino was a fine Lucia, Fabrizio’s wife whose change of heart towards Ninetta was moving. A well sung performance, even if Salvatores’ production remains earthbound.