In today’s climate, the easiest stance for a production to take vis-à-vis a work like La campana sommersa would be a critical one, a commentary on the above themes from our enlightened social perspective. I was grateful that this presentation didn’t do that, but rather allowed Hauptmann, Guastalla, and Respighi to speak for themselves. The physical production, built around a slightly raked disc backed by a projected surround that included video sequences, was highly atmospheric and in sympathy with the score’s darkling tone. Romantic-realist in style, it came as close as one could expect short of full representational scene changes to drawing us into both the high forest and the village home. It was beautifully lit, which contributed especially to the touching effect of the final scene. The moment in which Enrico’s children come to the forest with a cup of their mother’s tears was hauntingly done. Costumes, crucial and potentially treacherous in this sort of stage world, were superior in design and execution. Such effective, supportive, and well-integrated productions are not common, so let the responsible artists’ names be recorded: Pier Francesco Maestrini (director), Juan Guillermo Nova (sets and videos), Marco Nateri (costumes), and Susan Roth (lights).
As to performance: If your salivary glands are not activated by the prospect of soprano faeries dancing in a ring, tenors miming as fauns, and baritones singing in pretend-froggiespeak, you have an ally in me. However, it turned out that these elements were deftly handled and gemütlich in feel, and the physicality of the elf-girl Rautendelein was nicely suggested by Brandie Sutton. The more naturalistic behavior of Act II (here, Act I, Scene 2) was also respectably undertaken, and more than that by Kristen Sampson, the Magda.
Vocally, the protagonist parts of Rautendelein and Enrico pose considerable challenges of endurance and technique, and the major supporting ones, while shorter and less problematic, call for leading-voice quality and presence. Pleasantly surprised by the all-round adequacy of the NYCO company, I was curious about the early casting history of these assignments. Campana’s premiere (1927) occurred not in the composer’s native country, but in Hamburg, where the play, which had currency for several decades in German-speaking theatres, would have been familiar to the audience. I’m unacquainted with a couple of the principals of that cast. But Gunnar Graarud (Enrico) was the Tristan of the 1930 Bayreuth recording (closer to a Torsten Ralf than a Lauritz Melchior), while Rudolf Bockelmann (L’Ondino) and Sabine Kalter (La Strega) were potent Wagnerians. The opera came to the Met a year later. The cast was headed by Elisabeth Rethberg, Giovanni Martinelli, Giuseppe de Luca, and Ezio Pinza–all in the highest rank among singers of the 20th Century, and all in their vocal primes. The conductor was Tullio Serafin, and the sets were by the eminent architect/designer Joseph Urban. (I have not found any reproductions of his work on Campana, but he is well represented in high-quality books and catalogues, and between his designs for Parsifal, Pelléas et Mélisande, and “The Ziegfeld Follies,” you’ll get an idea.)