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Ottorino RESPIGHI (1879-1936)
La Campana Sommersa (1927, rev. 1934)
Rautendelein - Valentina Farcas; Enrico - Angelo Villari; The Ondino - Thomas Gazheli; Magda - Maria Luigia Borsi; An Old Witch - Agostina Smimmero; A Priest - Dario Russo; First Elf - Martina Bortolotti; Second Elf - Francesca Paola Geretto; Third Elf - Olesya Berman Chuprinova; A Faun - Filippo Adami; A Schoolmaster - Nicola Ebau; A Barber - Mauro Secci;
First Child - Martino Corda; Second Child - Letizia Puddu; A Dwarf - Sandro Meloni
Coro del Conservatorio Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina di Cagliari
Cagliari Teatro Lirico Chorus & Orchestra/Donato Renzetti
Stage director: Pier Francesco Maestrini; Set designer: Juan Guillermo Nova; Costume designer: Marco Nateri; Lighting designer: Pascal Mérat
rec. live, 30 March - 1 April 2016, Teatro Lirico di Cagliari, Italy
Sound format: PCM Stereo/DTS 5.1; Picture format: 4K (2160p) Ultra-HD
Subtitles: Italian (original language), English, German, French, Japanese, Korean; Booklet notes: English, Italian.
NAXOS Blu-ray NBD0072V [144 mins]

Respighi’s La Campana Sommersa (The Sunken Bell) initially enjoyed success beginning with its 1927 Hamburg premiere. It made it to the Met on November 25, 1928, and then was presented at La Scala the following year. Respighi, apparently not completely satisfied with the opera, made cuts to the Second Act. This new version first presented in 1934. The opera then had further successes, but when the war came in 1939, it seemed to send the work into global neglect, from which it would not recover until 2016. This new Naxos Blu-ray video (apparently a joint effort with Unitel) documents the production at the Teatro Lirico di Cagliari in Italy that year, which revived the work. Will it lead to other productions, serve as a lifeline? More to the point, is La Campana Sommersa an opera of substantial artistic worth?

Maybe, but first let us take a look at this work. With a libretto by Claudio Guastalla, based on the 1896 Gerhart Hauptmann play, The Sunken Bell (or, in German, Die versunkene Glocke), this four-act opera’s music strikes the listener not exactly as a conflation of styles, but a work at least divulging a few, if vague, influences. It has a vocal manner not unlike that of Puccini and orchestration which in places hints at Debussy’s Pelléas and Mélisande. One also notices a bit of Richard Strauss, especially in the Fourth Act, not least in those sweet high string passages. Janáček and even Dvořák’s Rusalka are perhaps noticeable. Rusalka’s story is somewhat similar too. But, in fairness, Respighi was not attempting to mimic anyone, and thus the primary voice we hear in the work is the composer’s: one cannot help but notice plentiful stylistic similarities to the his own Roman Trilogy (Pines, Fountains and Roman Festivals) and his other orchestral works.
Since the opera’s story is fantasy, the music often has a lighter character, at times with sort of chirping and warbling sounds from the piccolo and flute, and glittery effects from the harp and other instruments. But there are many dark moments in the score too, as in the closing pages of Act III. Respighi’s vocal style in the opera is basically through-composed and the overall character of the music has a post-Romantic flavor, but does not exude the emotional or sentimental quality of Puccini. In fact, at times there is a slightly cold temperature to the lyrical music. You will not hear any big, stand-out numbers either, but the music is generally well crafted and quite accessible.

The story, to give a capsule summary, takes place much of the time in an enchanted (or accursed?) forest inhabited by sprites, fauns, a witch and Rautendelein, a sort of empathetic fairy. Bell-maker Enrico, having built a bell for a new church, is seriously injured on his way to deliver the bell; the wagon carrying it is sabotaged by fauns, causing the bell to tumble downward and sink into the nearby lake. Rautendelin enters into the human world to aid in Enrico’s recovery. Infatuated, Enrico leaves his wife for Rautendelein, and then speaks of founding a new religion and building a temple. Enrico’s wife commits suicide by jumping into the lake. Later the sunken bell tolls from the lake and Enrico, horror-struck, rejects Rautendelein, calling her a “maiden from hell”. In the final act, Enrico, old and sick now, asks the witch to allow him to see Rautendelein, now the wife of Ondino. The witch grants his wish, and Enrico and Rautendelein meet. She kisses him before he dies.

With the exception of video projections, which are quite imaginatively employed, the production is mainly traditional or old-school, with no attempt to update the story to a more contemporary setting or to tamper with it by inserting some sort of ‘relevant’ message. The lighting is often dim but mostly quite effective. Costuming for the human characters is related to late 19th or early 20th century, and the attire of the forest creatures features weird-looking horns on the fauns and a lizard suit with tail for Ondino. It is all quite effective visually, as are the sets for the forest, which show a background of trees. As one of the centerpieces, there is rock pile surrounding a well, which Rautendelein and Ondino use as a portal to their world.

The singing is excellent. Romanian soprano Valentina Farcas as Rautendelein has a strong, quite attractive voice and fine dramatic skills. Some listeners may find her voice lacking in color a bit, but her somewhat white sound is perfect for the role, serving well the ethereal and mystical quality of her character. Italian tenor Angelo Villari is utterly splendid as Enrico. When these two leads meet in the final act, it is one of the most powerful and memorable moments in the opera. Both these singers may well have very bright futures on the operatic stage. The rest of the cast members are also fine, especially German bass-baritone Thomas Gazheli as Ondino and Italian bass Dario Russo as the Priest. The orchestra plays with spirit and accuracy under the leadership of Donato Renzetti, a conductor whose judicious tempo choices and imaginative phrasing suggest he has a complete understanding of Respighi’s musical persona.

Now to address an issue I raised earlier regarding the artistic worth of La Campana Sommersa. I believe this opera gains in strength as it proceeds: in many ways it takes wing in the Second Act and continues to maintain a high level of intensity in the next two acts. The First Act, while not weak, is mostly light and sometimes seems to be setting up what lies ahead. Still, it is dramatically effective and musically appealing. I would call this work a minor masterpiece, and one that is well worth your attention if you favor operas in a post-Romantic idiom. It likely will never enter the standard repertory or get even close to it, but it stands a chance of gaining at least a little currency. Respighi’s opera is a deserving work and its past neglect should not signal its ultimate doom.

Of the composer’s ten completed operas, only a handful have achieved any significant recorded attention over the years, and few have gotten live performances in recent times. This new Naxos video recording might just be the most lavish production of a Respighi opera ever put on record in any format. Moreover, as far as I can determine, it is currently the only video recording available of any Respighi opera. It features excellent picture quality (Ultra-HD, 4K) and fine camera work, as well as vivid and well balanced sound reproduction. Those pondering purchase should know that even if a new recording of this opera comes along, one would not expect it to surpass or even equal this excellent effort. Your move.

Robert Cummings


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