Gioacchino Rossini (1792-1868) has a bicentennial coming up next year, and the world is already preparing. One harbinger is his opera "La Gazza Ladra" ("The Thieving Magpie"). The brilliant overture has been in the classical Top 40 since the opera's premiere in 1817, but the opera itself had not had an American performance in this century until it was done in Philadelphia last year.

Now, on the enterprising Sony label, which is becoming a major presence in recorded opera, comes a new recording (S3K 45 850, three CDs with libretto) that is likely to become a classic and win the opera the mass audience it deserves. Made during live performances at the Rossini Opera Festival in Pesaro, Italy, the composer's birthplace, the recording is truly international, with Gianluigi Gelmetti conducting an Italian Radio orchestra, the Prague Philharmonic Choir and a cast that includes Katia Ricciarelli, Samuel Ramey (a splendid villain), Bernadette Manca di Nizzo and Ferrucio Furlanetto.

One reason the opera has fallen from the repertoire may be that it falls between the usual categories of tragedy and comedy; it is a melodramma romantico, a tear-jerker with a happy ending. This genre is certainly familiar today from movies and has always appealed to a mass audience in the theater, but guardians of operatic decorum in the 19th century frowned on its mixture of styles -- particularly on the way it gave tragic situations and sentiments to members of the lower class. It is a story of a serving maid accused of stealing silverware that was actually stolen by a magpie. The villainous mayor of the town offers to save her if she will yield to his lecherous advances. "Never!" she cries. Sentenced to death, she is being marched to the scaffold (you can hear this dramatic moment in the overture) when the bird is caught stealing again.

The music is fully worthy of the tangled, intense story, and the performance is outstanding.

"Le Comte Ory" is another unfamiliar Rossini opera, but Washingtonians who hear the excellent Philips recording (422 406-2, two CDs with libretto) may find familiar elements in it. First of all, about half of the music (almost all of Act 1 and part of Act 2) is recycled from "Il viaggio a Reims" ("The Voyage to Rheims"), the scintillating variety show masquerading as an opera that opened the Wolf Trap Opera Company's season last year. Some of these arias originally were novelty numbers, unhampered by any connection with a plot, and the music is spectacularly effective with its original Italian text. But it still slips neatly into its new role in a rather serious French comic opera about a medieval libertine.

The music written specially for this opera is as good as that lifted from the earlier pie`ce d'occasion, and the whole work fits together smoothly. The opera, though comic, is quite different from Rossini's more familiar Italian works ("The Barber of Seville," "La Cenerentola" and "L'Italiana in Algeri"), with a lightness of touch, irony and sophistication that appealed to French audiences, inspired French composers to imitate him but left Italian audiences cold. Its quietly humorous elegance should find a substantial audience today. The cast is headed by two singers who have been applauded recently by Washington audiences: tenor John Aler, now appearing in the Washington Opera's "Magic Flute," and Sumi Jo, the exquisite coloratura soprano who made her local debut in the Washington Concert Opera's "I Puritani" last spring.

John Eliot Gardiner

The niceties of French style are observed with exemplary taste and superb musicianship in the above production, which uses the orchestra and chorus of the Opera de Lyon. The conductor is John Eliot Gardiner, who made a strong impression on Washington audiences recently as guest conductor of the National Symphony Orchestra. His expertise with French opera can also be heard in a superb performance of Berlioz's "La damnation de Faust" (Philips 426 199-2, two CDs with libretto) and an outstanding recording of Gluck's "Orphee et Eurydice" in its French version (EMI 7 498342, two CDs with libretto), but that is only a small corner of his repertoire; he is also an expert on Claudio Monteverdi, for example, and the Gardiner record that currently has me most excited is his performance of Monteverdi's great "Vespro della Beata Vergine" (also known as the Vespers of 1610) recorded live in St. Mark's Basilica, Venice (DG Archiv 429 565-2, two CDs with libretto).

There are several good recordings of this music, but Gardiner's is a revelation. First, it makes a difference to hear the music in the vast acoustics of the place for which it was composed; taken as pure sound, this set is glorious. Second, Gardiner's performers (including his own Monteverdi Choir, the English Baroque Orchestra and His Majesties Sagbutts & Cornetts) are excellent musicians. They are at home in the Vespers' highly specialized style, poised between Renaissance and Baroque. They know how and when to bring a touch of roughness, with its concomitant vitality and expressive power, into the music's smooth flow, and they glory in the variety of expression that is Monteverdi's greatest resource.

Early Music

It is one thing (and, of course, a very good thing) to try to perform old music in a style as close as possible to that of its origins. It is another (and equally good, I think) to adapt old music to modern perceptions and sensitivities. Perhaps the best interpretations partake of both approaches, as the Folger Consort will later this year when it presents an adaptation of Jehan Renart's "Guillaume de Dole," which is not only a brightly written medieval romance but also a sort of anthology of top hits from the early French and Provencal song repertoire.

Joel Cohen and the Boston Camerata similarly balance old material and modern perceptions in two productions of unusual interest: "New Britain: The Roots of American Folksong" (Erato 2292-45474-2, with booklet) and "Tristan et Iseult: A Medieval Romance in Music and Poetry" (Erato 8908-75528-2, with booklet). "New Britain" could also be called "New France"; it investigates the links between early music of Europe and folk music of the United States and Canada, somewhat as the new Hesperus CD, "Spain in the New World," does for musical traditions south of the border. It is fascinating to see the various ways the tune of "Barbara Allen," for example, has been used, or the connections between French and French-Canadian folk songs.

"Tristan" goes back to the original sources that, for better or for worse, ultimately evolved into the Wagnerian epic, including the romances (both named "Tristan") by Thomas de Bretagne (circa 1170) and Gottfried von Strassburg (circa 1210), sections of which are read in Old French and Middle High German; the charming "Lai du chevrefeuille"; and a fine collection of songs in French, Provencal, Latin and German that are related to the story or express feelings appropriate to one episode or another. The material is used creatively; an appropriate tune is used occasionally with a text for which music has not survived and the polyglot materials are arranged to tell a coherent and moving story in a first-class performance. This is well worth knowing in its own right, as a demonstration of how the Middle Ages viewed one of its most powerful legends. It should also enlighten and deepen understanding of the Wagner opus.