Charles Affron, Mirella Jona Affron: Publications

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

New York City Opera Reborn, 2: Ottorino Respighi’s La Campana Sommersa

In a post published in March 2015, we wrote of a gala concert at the Rose Theatre, a venue within the Time-Warner complex on Columbus Circle. Here was an occasion to support the rebirth of the New York City Opera founded in 1943 and dissolved in 2013. At the time of the concert, sponsored by the NYCO-Renaissance, it was not clear whether that ultimately successful group, led by Michael Capasso, or another, would inherit the name and the meager remaining resources of the once proud City Opera which had been for decades the second lyric stage of the nation’s cultural capital. 

The relaunch of the company began inauspiciously in January 2016 with a poorly received production of Puccini’s Tosca. Subsequent offerings have, for the most part, shied away from the core repertoire, leaving the canon to the powerful grasp of the Metropolitan. And in so doing, the New York City Opera redux has subscribed to the mission that served its predecessor well for so long.

This season opened with the coupling of the standard rep Pagliacci with Rachmaninoff’s rare one-act Aleko. There followed Tobin Stokes’s contemporary chamber opera, Fallujah, and a very successful revival of Leonard Bernstein’s Candide. The run of Respighi’s La Campana Sommersa (The Sunken Bell) has just concluded. The season will end with the New York premiere of Peter Eötvös’s Angels in America.

La Campana Sommersa, one of Respighi’s twelve operas, has not been heard in New York in nearly ninety years. It was one of four contemporary premieres that the then Metropolitan general manager, Giulio Gatti-Casazza, presented in the 1928-1929 season, a record the company has not duplicated and that the reborn City Opera can look to for inspiration.

The source of La Campana sommersa was the 1896 play Die versunkene Glocke by the German dramatist, Gerhart Hauptmann. One of the most prestigious voices in early 20th-century literature, Hauptmann won the Nobel Prize in 1912. At the time of the Met premiere of La Campana sommersa New York was familiar with the theatre of Hauptmann and with the music of Respighi. The composer enjoyed world-wide acclaim in the concert hall. Conductors determined to flaunt a great orchestra in a virtuoso show piece had only to program Respighi. No less a champion than Arturo Toscanini included the symphonic poem The Pines of Rome in his first concert with the New York Philharmonic in 1926, as did Andris Nelsons in his inaugural concert as music director of the Boston Symphony in 2014.

A philosophical fairy tale that foregrounds an interspecies love affair, the plot of La Campana sommersa is reminiscent of Dvořák’s Rusalka. Enrico, a master-forger, injured when his new bell is toppled into a lake by a mischievous faun, regains his health through the mediation of Rautendenlein, a water sprite. He is enchanted by the elfin creature, abandons his wife and children, and forges a new bell and a mountain-top temple for the worship of the Sun and the eternal youth of Humanity. He is gripped by remorse when his children bring him an urn filled with the tears of his wife, who has drowned herself in the lake. As the opera ends, Enrico desperately searches for Rautendelein who bestows a kiss on him as he dies. The subject is rich in vivid contrasts. Human beings share the world with sprites, elves, and fauns; Enrico works with iron and stone, Rautendelein is a creature of the water; responsibility to family and community cede to the desires of the artist; Christianity is at war with Paganism. While the uneven score and murky libretto go a long way towards explaining the opera’s neglect, we were struck by the opulent orchestration and the dramatic force and expressive vocal line of two episodes in Act III. The excerpts that follow are drawn from a 1956 RAI transmission conducted by Franco Capuana.

First we hear the confrontation between Enrico and a Christian curate. The master-forger, his voice echoing his bells, joyously sings of his vision of the new temple. The horrified cleric accuses him of heresy and reminds him of wife and family. The tenor is Umberto Borsò, the bass Plinio Clabassi.

There follows an ecstatic love duet between Enrico and Rautendelein. The soprano is Margherita Carosio, one of Italy’s most popular lyric-coloraturas of the inter-war and immediate post-war periods.

Two complete performances of La Campana sommersa are available on Youtube.