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Respighi’s Sunken Bell - (La Campana sommersa)

by Ian Lace

Respighi’s opera La campana sommersa was one of his most successful works. This essay traces its origins, development and early performance history.

Cover of the vocal score of La campana sommersa

It is an interesting work not the least because of its philosophical ambiguities. On the surface it appears to be a story of the conflict of orthodox Christian faith with older, more pagan beliefs as represented by the fairy folk: Ondine, the water sprite, the Faun (the spirit of the woods) and the heroine, Rautendelein, the elf-girl.. Respighi confessed to having fallen in love with the character of Rautendelein. As his wife Elsa observed, in this opera, he revealed his predilection for the world of nature and fable. Respighi Society President, Adriano, in this article’s footnote, observes that Respighi had "a complex personality, torn between ascetic ideals, often reaching the domain of pantheistic mysticism, and the sensual realities of the world."

But first:–

The Story of La campana sommersa

Act I. Opens on a high mountain meadow.

Set for Act I of Respighi's La campana sommersa

Rautendelein, a pretty young elf-girl, is seated on the edge of a well combing her long blonde hair. Mischievously, she shouts down into the well to awaken the old water-sprite, Ondino, who tells her not to be so impertinent. Rautendelein laughs at the cheerless well-dweller and filled with the exuberance of youth, dances about the meadow. A faun enters and tries to induce the elf-girl into the bushes for a frolic but she mocks him and runs away. Ondino asks the faun for news. The faun observes that the humans are erecting a church on the mountainside and that were it not for his quick thinking a noisy bell would already be hanging in the steeple. The faun then boasts that it was he who had wrecked the cart carrying the bell up the steep slope injuring Enrico, the caster of the bell, and sending the bell plummeting over the edge of the cliff to where it now rests in silence - submerged at the bottom of the high lake. Their conversation is interrupted by the arrival of the badly injured Enrico who collapses near the door of a small hut. The faun dashes away into the forest and Ondino dives down the well at Enrico’s approach.

Rautendelein approaches the injured man and takes pity on him despite the admonitions of the old witch (her grandmother) who lives in the hut. The witch tells her that it is the fate of all humans to die, a merciful deliverance from their suffering. A pastor, a schoolmaster and a barber – all friends of Enrico – come looking for the bell-caster. Seeing their approach Rautendelein traces a magic circle of protection and possession around Enrico. The men find Enrico and place him on a makeshift stretcher and bear him away. Rautendelein is saddened for she has come to like the handsome young man. Night falls and some elves appear and begin dancing in the moonlight. Rautendelein joins them for a little while but soon loses interest. Sorrowfully, she sits on the edge of the well, thinking of Enrico and the world of the humans. Ondino resurfaces and tries to cheer her up but despite his warning she runs away "to the land where humans dwell."

Act II is set in Enrico’s house. Magda, his wife, is preparing breakfast anxiously awaiting his return. The pastor, schoolmaster and barber carry the injured man and lay him on the bed. Magda dismisses everyone to be alone with her husband. Enrico tells her that he is dying. Magda, distraught, tries to ease his pain and tells him this is not true but the bell-caster is adamant that only a miraculous flower that grows on the mountain can save him. The pastor returns with a young girl, who is to help Magda take care of Enrico. The pastor also tells Magda about Mistress Clover, a devout widow, who knows the secrets of healing herbs. Magda decides to see the old woman and leaves hurriedly. After some words of instruction to the girl the pastor also leaves. No sooner is she alone with Enrico than the girl reveals herself as Rautendelein. With magic spells and kisses, she restores Enrico to health. She asks him to join her on the mountain where, with his regained strength and new inspiration, he will create a miraculous bell, one which the mortal world has never heard before. Enrico is about to follow the elf-girl away when Magda returns. Astonished at his incredible recovery, she throws herself into his arms and kisses him. Rautendelein stands on one side, motionless, devastated.

Act III. An isolated hut high up in the mountains. Enrico has deserted Magda and is now living with Rautendelein and working on his miraculous bell. He has forced Ondino, the faun and some dwarves into labouring for him. The pastor appears and urges Enrico to return to his family which is now destitute without him. When Enrico tries to explain his glorious ambition to raise a temple to the Saviour who has been redeemed by the sun, and to found a new cult which will bring peace, generosity and love to the world, the pastor is appalled at Enrico’s heresy and curses the bell-caster’s vision. In anger, Enrico answers, "Sooner will my sunken bell sound in the depths of the lake than I will change my course!" The pastor leaves. Enrico takes Rautendelein into his arms and kisses her passionately. Suddenly cries are heard. A crowd of people has climbed the mountain bent on destroying the bell-caster and his work. Enrico runs out to engage his enemies and returns victorious. As he embraces Rautendelein once more, the ghosts of his two children appear, a large jar in their hands. They tell Enrico that the jar contains the bitter tears of their mother who, in despair, has drowned herself in the lake. A bell is heard tolling in the distance as if from the depths. The two ghost children vanish. Enrico insane with grief and filled with revulsion over what his actions have caused, curses Rautendelein and dashes out into the darkness.

Act IV. The mountain meadow; as in the first act. Deserted by Enrico, Rautendelein has married Ondino and now lives in the well. The bell-caster enters searching for the elf-girl. He has lost everything: his wife, his children, Rautendelein, his dreams. All he seeks now is death. The witch tells him that he will soon die, for, "When one with all his strength has tried to fly towards the light, and failed, he must surely die." The witch grants Enrico one last wish before dying - to see Rautendelein again. The elf-girl emerges from the well and reproaches Enrico for abandoning her and driving her into the well. Enrico weeps over what he has done. As he dies, Rautendelein forgives him and kisses him tenderly. The sound of marvellous bells is heard in the heavens.

The development of the opera

The first that we learn of Respighi working on La Campana sommersa is at the end of July 1925 at L’Abetone where his wife Elsa was recovering from an attack of colitis (a malady that quite frequently disturbed her). In her biography of her husband, Ottorino Respighi Elsa remarks, ‘…At the modest and rather primitive Chiarofonte hotel, Respighi had a large table put in his room and at once set to work on the score of the Concerto misolidio. In the afternoons we went for a stroll in the woods, where he often talked about La Campana sommersa or made notes. This was a period of unruffled calm and we both savoured a great zest for living.’ The Respighis returned to the Chiarofonte hotel the next summer, 1926, and Respighi ‘went on orchestrating his Campana sommersa.’ And in her other book, From Fifty Years of A Life in Music, Elsa adds, ‘For two years, going through moments of joyous exaltation and desperate crises, Respighi worked on La campana sommersa.’

Respighi’s love of Rautendelein

For the opera’s premiere in Hamburg on November 18, 1927, Respighi, at the request of the publisher, Bock, wrote a brief essay, entitled A Meeting with Rautendelein about the origin and intention of the opera. It began thus:-

‘My first meeting with Rautendelein was not as one might expect; it did not take place in the hall of a theatre, nor in a bookseller’s shop, nor in a friend’s library. A refined lady brought Rautendelein to my house, saying, "You also will love this little fairy and the beautiful dream in which she lives." Like Rautendelein, my young friend was born in the regions of the north and had a subtle intuition. Every thing in Gerhart Hauptmann’s admirable fairy-drama seemed musical to me – in each scene, in each character whether real; or unreal, in that strange mixture of humanity and fable, I felt music take wing. From the first words that described the scene: "An upland meadow enclosed by sonorous fir trees…" Do you hear them? There is music already! I must have been very much in love with Rautendelein if, for ten years, thoughts of that nebulous elf never left my mind. And now, ten years later, I continue to love her. One day I confided my love to Guastalla. Claudio Guastalla had already written a beautiful libretto for me, Belfagor, and he has written others since La campana sommersa ... At his first reading of Hauptmann’s poem, Guastalla remained doubtful. Very few Italians were acquainted with the poem, and Guastalla did not know it at all. Some obscure aspects of the poem and all the symbolism surrounding it seemed a formidable obstacle. We did not speak about it for a few months but one fine day I noticed that he, too, had fallen in love with Rautendelein. At first I had thought to write music for a text in the German language, and my collaborator had patiently set himself to reducing and cutting without changing the words. For reasons of literary propriety, I decided on a libretto in Italian verse. It certainly was a fortunate decision, because perhaps using a language different to mine would have obstructed my musical inspiration. But the Italian text always remained as faithful as possible to the poem of the great German dramatist. In this endeavour, Guastalla’s devoted love and intelligent attention were not the least of his meritorious qualities. He had begun working on this project with admirable energy in the summer of 1924 while he was vacationing in the mountains of Tuscany and I at the seaside, at the Strait of Messina. With the announcement that all of the publishing difficulties had been overcome, my friend expressed his enthusiasm in a telegram with these words: "Quorax, quorax, quorax, brekekekex!" (in the language of Ondino). Fortunately in Italy there was no longer censorship; otherwise that mysterious message would have caused the poor censor serious embarrassment.’

Discussion about Hauptmann’s original poem

Elsa remarks, ‘There has been a great deal of discussion about whether Hauptmann’s poem was a good choice as the subject for an opera. The fact remains that, from both the fanciful and human elements of the fairy-drama, Respighi drew inspiration for some of the most beautiful music he ever wrote. In Nebbie, in Le fontane di Roma, in Deità silvane, and in the little poems, Aretusa and La sensitiva, Respighi clearly revealed his predilection for the world of nature and fable. The characters Ondino (the spirit of the waters), Fauno (the spirit of the woods) and the very beautiful elf Rautendelein, who becomes a woman for love – none could fail to find perfect resonance in Respighi’s music. Also the human character, Enrico, an artist with fearless and unattainable ambitions, and his companion, Magda, a sweet human figure of a woman who seeks in vain to understand her husband’s delirious obsession – both find their profound expression in Respighi’s art. Rarely did Respighi reach such dramatic power as he did in the music accompanying the appearance of Enrico’s children, carrying their mother’s tears in a cup while from the depths of the lake, emerge the strong, hollow tragic peals of the bell as Magda’s body grazes it in her fall.’ [See also the footnote to this article]

The Hamburg and New York premières

In October 1927 the Hamburg rehearsals for La campana sommersa were not going well so the premiere was postponed several times before it finally was staged on November 18. The most important critics from Berlin were present and so too was Gerhart Hauptmann. Elsa remembered, ‘Hauptmann had a magnificent head and resembled Goethe. To see him next to Respighi who resembled Beethoven so much, had a certain effect. According to Elsa, ‘the Hamburg premiere was a good performance and the work voted a success’. .

The New York premiere of the opera, at the Metropolitan was on November 25, 1928. Writing to Guastalla, Elsa noted, ‘Here’s the way it was. Fifty-three call-backs. The number will tell you better than any description of the degree of success! There was a theatre so crowded it was scary, and many people had to be turned away for lack of space. Even from the dress rehearsal, success could be predicted. Just think, Guastalla, that Ottorino was unable to make even the smallest criticism. Everything was perfect to that degree. Serafin was an unsurpassable performer. Perfect were the tempos, the colouration of the orchestra, the pauses - in sum I tell you unsurpassable. Elisabeth Rethberg possesses a heavenly voice, and the role of Rautendelein seems to have been written for her. A delight! Martinelli, everyone says, went beyond himself. It seems that in no other opera has he shown himself to be so complete a performer. At the end of the third act –I can’t tell you what happened! Even Gatti-Casazza was crying! De Luca made a true creation of the role of Ondino. Marvellous. What a great thing this opera is, dear friend! Pity you were not here last night. Nevermore will a similar performance be achieved.’

Another Metropolitan performance several days later, on November 29, of La campana was recalled vividly by Ella because ‘... Respighi was taking his last bow before an applauding audience at 10:20 after the performance of the Toccata; and at 10:45, thanks to the subway that made a two-minute connection between Carnegie Hall and the Metropolitan possible, he was on stage to thank the audience of the Metropolitan after the second act of La campana. Only in America!’

Respighi’s stage directions

Some time before the rehearsals for the Milan premiere of La campana (1929), Respighi sent a letter to the director of La Scala, Scandiani, in which he gave stage directions. Respighi wrote:-

‘Act I. It is necessary as soon as the curtain opens that the audience immediately has the impression of a world that is pure fantasy. The stylised trees serve to give a visual sensation of this unreality. It is necessary to remember that, at the beginning of the act, the light must be that of a sun-filled afternoon with warm tones, and that toward the end, the whole moonlit scene must be diffused silver. (Set the lights at "Silver Level.") The trunks of the birch trees must themselves have silvery reflections. A number of the trees must be built so that the elves can move around them during the dances.

‘Act II. This is the only act that takes place in the world of reality. It seems to me that the Italian artists who build the scenery can bear in mind the sketch by the Hamburg painter Daniel, who fortunately drew the German hut of Enrico.

‘Act III. I beg the set designer to read the stage directions in the libretto attentively. I am very happy with some aspects of the stage we used in Hamburg. (I sent you the photographs.) But the stage directions allow for an even more fanciful set with parts of the construction leaning on the live rock.

‘Act IV must create the unreal impression of the first act.'

Productions in Milan, Rome and Buenos Aires

The staging of La campana at La Scala in Milan was closely followed by another at the Teatro Reale, Rome both with ‘unqualified success’. Then in August 1929 the opera was produced in Buenos Aires. Again Elsa enthuses, ‘... a triumph! A complete triumph! Public, press, musicians, were all taken with La Campana and the Colon had not seen such a huge success for ten years.’ After describing the numerous between-act curtain calls, Elsa goes on to say ‘ ... and when Ottorino came out alone the audience went mad ... I cannot describe my excitement during the performance or my joy afterwards. Ottorino, as Olympian as ever, conducted magnificently and the whole opera went without a hitch. Nobody believed that it was Respighi’s first experience of conducting opera. It was really astonishing. The critics unanimously voted it the best Italian opera of recent years and unreservedly praised both the music and the libretto.’

Bologna – Respighi’s humanity

Elsa goes on to cover performances, in November 1929, in Respighi’s home town of Bologna She recalls that Respighi enjoyed meeting so many of his old school companions on that occasion but was disappointed to find that his old home was occupied by strangers and that ‘he felt a deep sadness for his adored mother no longer there to hear her Ottorino’s music, see his success and share his happiness. The orchestra leader was one of Respighi’s old teachers, who made heavy weather of the solo passages and whose intonation was often faulty so that one of the management advised the Maestro to have the elderly violinist replaced. To which Respighi replied, "Rather than hurt my old teacher, I prefer to withdraw my opera."’


Finally we hear about another performance of La campana sommersa given in Flemish, at the Antwerp Opera House, in March 1931. During that week (7-19 March) there was a Respighi Festival in Belgium including orchestral and chamber concerts at Ghent, Brussels, Liège as well as the staging of the opera in Antwerp. In a note that had presentiments of the illnesses that were to blight Respighi’s final years, Elsa recalls that Respighi had been engaged to conduct at one of the concerts - ‘Respighi had a severe attack of influenza, but so as not to embarrass our concert-organisers (the hall was sold out) he insisted on conducting with a high temperature. Weakened by the drugs he had been taking all day he still managed to mount the rostrum that evening but when I saw how deathly pale he was I was terrified that he would collapse on the spot. Fortunately all went well and his rashness did not have the grave consequences I feared. Doctor Sluys treated him for several days and advised me to have his heart examined as soon as we got back to Rome. Once there, I spoke to Wachmann who assured me that it was merely a heart-murmur which the Maestro had had from his young days as a result of rheumatic fever.’

Footnote – Respighi’s complex inner personality and beliefs

* In this context, the conductor and Respighi scholar, Adriano, writing the booklet notes for the Marco Polo recording of Respighi’s La Primavera (8.223595) makes this interesting remark about the composer, "La Primavera belongs to Respighi’s autobiographical or key group of works consisting of operas [including La campana sommersa] cantatas, and songs that give some insight into a complex personality, torn between ascetic ideals, often reaching the domain of pantheistic mysticism, and the sensual realities of the world. Music certainly helped him to find his mental and physical equilibrium. Very little is known, however, about the composer’s apparently complex inner world, which was often a mystery even to his wife, his ex-pupil Elsa, fifteen years his junior. The poetry he chose to set to music suggests a confrontation with ideologies of life ranging from a desire of integration with nature (Shelley - [Aretusa (1911) Il Tramonto (1914) and La Sensitiva (1915)] ), to an enraptured and mystical search for the Creator. A fatalistic refusal of social integration and a desire to escape into a cosmic world (La campana sommersa) leads finally to a submission of the daemonic forces of the supernatural (La fiamma) or to those of brutal human violence (Lucrezia).

Ian Lace

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