Campana is about a master bellcaster, Enrico (a/k/a Heinrich), whose aspirations to transcendence draw him up against the realm of mythical creatures of Nature (of water, deep forest, and mountain) we meet so often in Northern and Eastern European tales—stories of the Lorelei, of russalki, ondines, woodsprites and nymphs, trolls and elves. Their forces hover over the worlds of Romantic ballet and Lieder, operas of Dvořák, Rimsky-Korsakov, Wagner, and others, and are seldom far off in Ibsen. In Act I, the bellcaster’s chef-d’oeuvre, on its way to installation on a height wherefrom it will ring out over all the land, has been dumped into the depths of a lake with the connivance of one of these mythical beings, a faun. The bellcaster is gravely injured in the confrontation. But he also meets his Muse, an elf-girl named Rautendelein. Returned to his village, Enrico struggles to regain his health in the company of his loyal wife, Magda, his children and community. But when Rautendelein in turn invades his world, effects a cure with a kiss on his eyes, and re-awakens his dream of transcendence (think Hilda Wangel and her Master Builder), he forsakes wife and family to follow his artistic/erotic bliss with Rautendelein and her companions, and to forge a new bell. The abandoned Magda drowns herself in the lake, and the sunken bell tolls its baleful summons. Broken, Enrico returns to the human world. After the passage of many years, he seeks out Rautendelein once more for a last farewell. He had struggled toward the light, the sun, and seemed almost there—“ma la notte . . . è lunga.” He dies, and the natural world continues on its way. There’s much else, but that’s the gist.
I’m afraid we must say that Respighi’s generation saw the death throes of Italian opera. The hopeful verismo excitements of the giovane scuola were pretty much at an end, and with all respect due to Dallapiccola, Pizzetti, and a few others, no way forward was found. This calamity is often ascribed to problems of musical style—the final unsuitability, despite some initial success (i.e., Berg) and ingenious adaptive efforts—of pantonality and serial technique to sung drama. I don’t for a moment dispute the point. But I see it less as primary cause than as consequence. As I argue at some length in my book (see “Opera as Opera,” Part III and ff.—adv.), I believe the generative force behind opera’s 19th-Century apogee was no musical style or family of styles, but the metanarrative of the faydit protagonist couple, whose predicament operawrights took as their own, and which provides the basic plot/character conformation of nearly all of the masterworks of that age.
Believing this, I see La campana sommersa as a kind of late appendage to that narrative, and not so much a protest as an acknowledgement (a quite beautiful one) of its passing. It takes up all the interlocking themes we would associate with that acknowledgement:
¶ Domesticity as the enemy of artistic inspiration, and vice-versa. The desperation of the (male) artist torn between his longing for tranquility, devotion, and continuance, and his frantic search for artistic freedom and the call of The Muse, invariably in the form of an idealized woman. The perceived impossibility of uniting these longings in a single woman. This opposition, always present in the Romantic spirit, now intensified by the bourgeoisification of society, with its suffocating implications for creativity.