Rossini’s opera La gazza ladra was composed to a libretto based on a highly successful French melodrama called La Pie voleuse ou la Servante du Palaiseau. It dramatised a true incident in which a French peasant girl was wrongly hanged for a theft that turned out to be the work of a thieving magpie.
The first performance of Rossini’s opera took place on 31 May 1817 at La Scala, Milan. The story involves Ninetta, a servant working for farmer Fabrizio Vingradito and his wife Lucia. They are expecting the return of their son, Giannetto, from the war, and while Fabrizio intends him to marry Ninetta, Lucia disapproves. She believes Ninetta is careless and unreliable. Giannetto arrives home, and a peddler and a vagrant both visit the farm. Ninetta recognizes the vagrant as her father, Fernando, a soldier who has run away after quarrelling with his commanding officer. Ninetta tries to hide her father, but is interrupted by the mayor of the village, Gottardo, who fancies her – a sentiment she does not reciprocate.
Ninetta tries to persuade 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 to hide the money nearby tree for him to collect. Ninetta agrees. Next, the town clerk brings the mayor a report about a deserter and, having forgotten his glasses, Gottardo asks Ninetta to read it for him. She alters the description so that her father will not be recognized. Meanwhile, a magpie alights in the room and steals a spoon from the table. Later that same day, Lucia notices the spoon’s absence and the peddler tells her that Ninetta sold him a spoon with the initials FV. Ninetta is arrested for theft and taken to prison.
That’s Act 1. In Act 2 Ninetta is found guilty and sentenced to death, but eventually the magpies’ nest is found together with the missing silver, everything falls into place and they all live happily ever after. But now, it seems, fresh doubt has been cast on the theft itself. According to recent research, magpies do not steal silver spoons. The myth of the “thieving magpie” has been refuted and someone will have to devise a new ending to the opera. My money is on the jealous mayor.
Scientists have demonstrated that magpies are actually nervous of shiny objects, presumably because they are strange and may prove dangerous. Researchers placed heaps of nuts just 30 cm away from a pile of shiny metal screws, small foil rings, and rectangular pieces of aluminium foil, and a similar pile of objects covered with matt blue paint.
In over fifty tests, a magpie picked up a shiny object only twice, discarding it immediately. The birds ignored or avoided both the shiny and the blue objects, and often fed less when they were in the vicinity. It seems that the Oxford English Reference Dictionary’s assertion that a magpie is in the habit of “collecting bright objects” will have to be revised. And – Blistering Barnacles! – someone will have to rewrite Hergé’s The Castafiore Emerald, which absurdly claims that opera diva Bianca Castafiore’s prize jewel was also stolen by a magpie.