NEW YORK CITY OPERA joined forces with Italy’s Teatro Lirico di Cagliari to give New Yorkers the gift of Respighi’s La Campana Sommersa (The Sunken Bell, 1925), absent from the city’s stages since the Metropolitan Opera last staged it in 1929 in a Joseph Urban production featuring Giovanni Martinelli, Elisabeth Rethberg, Giuseppe De Luca, and Ezio Pinza. Cagliari’s exquisite 2016 production was brought over intact to the Rose Auditorium at Jazz at Lincoln Center, along with several of the company’s key orchestra members. It turned out to be a high point in the ongoing history of the revived City Opera.
Respighi’s shimmering score, bearing clear traits of Ravel, Debussy, and Strauss, was ravishing to hear as conducted by Ira Levin. Interweaving the diaphonous and the dramatic, it clothes a libretto by Claudio Guastalla based on Gerhart Hauptmann’s German fairytale play Die Versunkene Glocke, itself containing elements familiar to many through The Little Mermaid, Ondine, and Rusalka. In such tales, when an unearthly female being falls in love with a mortal male, nothing good ever results. Such is the case here, in a Symbolist epic that also poses larger questions. Among these is: can an artist’s creative drive destroy the lives of those who love him the most? Enrico is a bell-caster whose masterpiece, destined for the tower of a new church, has just been mischeivously destroyed by being rolled into the bottom of a lake by an angry faun. He is devastated, but Rautendelein, a forest elf, comforts him and renews his broken spirit, at the same time inadvertently setting in motion the destruction of his family. After trying unsuccessfully to create a new temple for a new religion, Enrico abandons Rautendelein, who marries Ondino, an ungainly, oversized water creature who lives at the bottom of a spring, and Enrico is left to die after Rautendelein gives him one last kiss.
With its four acts turned into two, buffered by a single intermission, this was a long evening, and the opera has its draggy spots and static sequences. But much of the captivating score still worked magic, as did Pier Francesco Maestrini’s production, which utilized gorgeous projections by scenic and video designer Juan Guillermo Nova. Creating, misty, three-dimensional, multi-plane effects of waterfalls, deep forests, and sunbursts, Nova’s designs delivered a fantastic world that seemed altogether believable.
At the opening performance on Friday, March 31, the opera was blessed with an ideal cast. Fabio Armiliato, scheduled to make his return to opera in New York, fell ill with a persistent sinus infection and had to withdraw, so his alternate Marc Heller stepped in. Heller’s past experience with Calaf, Otello, and Canio served him well in the punishing marathon role of Enrico, where he displayed not only vocal richness and strength, but an elegance of declamation, as well as excellent Italian. Brandie Sutton scored a triumph as Rautendelein, weaving her lovely lyric soprano tirelessly and accurately through runs and melismas yet also maintaining a nuanced dramatic commitment. Michael Chioldi’s smooth baritone and stagewise presence made him a memorable Ondino, especially appealing when singing such nonsense syllables as “Brekekekex! Brekekekex!” and “Quorax! Quorax!” Glenn Seven Allen, a gifted tenor who alternates between musical comedy and opera, gave a wonderfully physical performance as the braying, libidinous faun; bare-chested, covered in green body paint, and pawing the ground with his cloven hoofs. (Marco Nateri’s costumes for these characters were as appropriate as they were outlandish.)
Singing Enrico’s s unfortunate wife Magda, who only has one scene, soprano Kristin Sampson made every moment count, brandishing a voice that, while not always beautiful, definitely carried verismo-style power. In the role of a blowhard pastor who tries mightily to dissuade Enrico from his quest, bass-baritone Philip Cokorinos was luxury casting. The only performance that did not quite register was that of mezzo Renata Lamanda as a Jezibaba-style forest witch. With her statuesque, fearsome presence and booming chest tones, she had the right requirements for the part, yet she seemed oddly distant and uninvolved.
The Teatro Lirico di Cagliari and New York City Opera are both known for their willingness to stage works that have been underappreciated or forgotten. This production of La Campana Sommersa shows that the two companies can make a great team.