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

¶ The powerfully felt identification of the artistic temperament with the natural, primitive world, and the horror of the encroachments of industrialized humanity on that world—the feared end of all the sources of beauty, of refreshment of spirit, of the reach toward something higher.

¶ As corollary to the foregoing (as I said, these interlock), the conflict between Christianity (represented in Campana by Il Curato, who tries to argue Enrico back to his family and community) and paganism (represented by all the free spirits of the forest and high meadow, and by La Strega, who presides over them). The operawright (Hauptmann/Guastalla/Respighi) does not take sides—or, rather, he takes both alternately.

¶ And finally, dualism in its ancient form: an eternal struggle between light and dark, between a higher realm and this one. The tableau that ends Act III (at least in this staging), with the revived Enrico, legs straddling and arms reaching up toward a burst of light, could certainly be a jolt of the futurism of Respighi’s time. But it could also be an image from anywhere in the millennia-long succession of these dualistic beliefs, from Zoroastrianism (that could be Ahura-Mazda up there) down to the Cathars and the world of courtly love (wherefrom, according to me, our great operawrights retrieved their essential materials) and beyond.

These themes are what’s left of the grand operatic narrative. Always embedded within it, they now dangle off its remains, never to be resolved. Respighi’s music, so brilliant and alluring, is also filled with a mournfulness of farewell that in its way is as deep as that of the Strauss of Capriccio, or even Metamorphosen—goodbye to all that, including opera itself. Its very eloquence in engaging with the “all that” at so late a date also dares an inconvenient question to raise its head: what if the agonized dreamers were onto something fundamentally true? What if the conditions for transcendent artistic creation are in fact more or less as the dreamers felt them? What if (as that would imply) such creation is an essentially masculine imperative with a hardwired component, driven by male sexuality’s need to compensate for Woman’s biological creativity—a sort of reversal of the Penis Envy caper, which we then recognize as Freud’s own compensatory invention? What if, even with all conceivable obstacles to female advancement removed, the operawrighting situation were to remain approximately status quo ante? (We can’t, of course, know until the last such obstacles are definitively removed, and time allowed.)

The what-ifs in no way supplant the case for the metanarrative. But they may help explain the fevered quality of so much of its realization in music, the place the greatest operas take us to, which is reached by no other means. Yes, in its debased manifestations the what-ifs can signify nothing better than “Sorry, I didn’t get to the dishes; I had to work,” or “I never meant this to happen, but my secretary’s  a really profound person.” But at the high end—certainly in opera—the masterworks of all the ages of opera till this one constitute evidence to consider.