BUT THE NIGHT. . .IS LONG: “The Sunken Bell” of Ottorino Respighi.

La campana sommersa has for me always been an opera known by name only, one of several by a composer whose orchestral extravaganzas and arrangements of ancient songs and dances I enjoy, and taken from an exotic-sounding play by Gerhart Hauptmann, a writer generally considered as a Father of Theatrical Naturalism.  (Hauptmann’s “The Weavers” and Maxim Gorki’s “The Lower Depths,” I was taught, were founding documents of that style, and I guess that’s more or less true, though far from the complete story of either of these writers. Hauptmann was almost from the beginning drawn toward poetic, symbolic elements, witness “The Sunken Bell,” from1896.) So in early April I was happy for an opportunity to see Campana in a co-production between an Italian company (the Teatro Lirico di Cagliari) and the New York City Opera redux. It was a heartening evening for me, both for discovery of the piece and for implied possibilities for the viability of our long-besieged Second Company.

I went to Campana the way I went to many performances when very young, prepped only by a reading of the plot synopsis, and with little idea of what to expect from the performance. I entertained a mixture of hopeful curiosity and trepidation about the current condition of the announced leading tenor, Fabio Armiliato, whom I’d last heard live in a Don Carlo some fifteen years ago,(I)I did catch Fabio in Woody Allen’s “To Rome with Love.” He was most amusing, and sounded pretty good. and of the company itself, most recently encountered in 2014 under its previous management, tackling Rossini’s Mosé in Egitto at the City Center.  After my sour experience with Met program notes (see the post of Aug. 4), it was little short of exhilarating to read the informative essay by Lucy Tucker Yates, who seems to know the literary and mythical background of the work and to understand its theatrical and musical idiom, and whose writing is literate and witty. As the Rose Hall houselights lowered, we were informed that Armiliato was sick, and the demanding role of Enrico would be taken by his alternate—a disappointment, but a provisional one, since one didn’t really know what one was losing or gaining.

Respighi’s score is of a kind I find congenial. His mastery of orchestral description—a melding of thematic invention, instrumention of great brilliance and sombre depths, and often magnetic harmonic progressions—was anticipated, and indeed there are stunning extended passages that envelop the listener in the melancholy mystery and fateful seductiveness of the subject and setting. But the music seldom wanders into the purely evocative; it is alert to dramatic event and character. By combining the NYCO’s own players with the Cagliari ensemble (which had already played the run over there), a full, skilled orchestral complement was assembled, and they sounded superb. Without more knowledge of the score, I can’t responsibly evaluate the conducting of Ira Levin as interpretation, but he was clearly in command, and managed pit/stage balances without cheating the glories of the scoring. Respighi’s vocal writing, predominantly in through-composed arioso form, is challenging, but rewardingly set for the appropriate voices. More on that, and on the production, below. What particularly fascinated me about Campana  was the composer’s response to the play’s thematic materials (the librettistic adaptation is by Claudio Guastalla).

Footnotes   [ + ]

I. I did catch Fabio in Woody Allen’s “To Rome with Love.” He was most amusing, and sounded pretty good.