Review: A Buried Treasure Is Unearthed In NYCO’s ‘La Campana Sommersa’
By Christopher Johnson, Contributing Writer, April 3, 2017
Respighi’s La campana sommersa was the toast of the town when the Metropolitan Opera gave it its World Deuxième in 1928, in an eye-popping production designed by Joseph Urban, conducted by Tullio Serafin, and featuring an all-star cast including Rethberg, Martinelli, and de Luca in the leads, a young Ezio Pinza in a breakout supporting role, and Gladys Swarthout’s debut later in the run, substituting as the Third Elf. But even with fifty-three curtain-calls on opening night and a slew of rave-reviews (click here, search for the title, and look at performances 1, 2, and 5), the show seems to have gone soft at the box-office, and after eight performances in New York and Philadelphia, that was that. New York City Opera’s current revival, co-produced with Teatro Lirico di Cagliari, is the first in this city—and one of the few anywhere—in nearly ninety years.
So what took so long? It’s hard to guess. The music is gorgeous—a rich post-Wagnerian synthesis of elements deriving from Debussy, Strauss, and even Stravinsky, all beautifully shaped to the voice and every bit as magnificently orchestrated as you would expect from Respighi; and the libretto—Claudio Guastalla’s Italian-verse reimagining of Gerhart Hauptmann’s symbolist drama Der versunkene Glocke, derived from that rich family of legends and fairy-tales that includes The Little Mermaid and Rusalka—is at once touching and profound, using the basic romance as a compelling metaphor for the artistic temperament and the vision that drives it. It’s a natural thematic companion to L’amour de loin, deeper and more disturbing than Rusalka, and far more immediate, humane, and genuinely theatrical than Die Frau ohne Schatten, just to name three recent Met hits cut from similar cloth.
City Opera’s musical realization suggested how strong the piece might be. It was, for the most part, beautifully sung, although everyone had to project through a scrim and a lot of meaningful detail had to be taken on faith. The orchestra, comprised of players from both of the sponsoring companies, did a fine job under Ira Levin’s leadership, although the room’s acoustics thickened and hardened all but the most delicate of Respighi’s instrumental writing, and this, in turn, often overpowered the singers. The outstanding exception was baritone Michael Chioldi, as l’Ondino, a water spirit. He was consistently audible, expressive, in character, spontaneous, and fully related to everything onstage. This was a lovely, deeply considered performance, all the more remarkable for being carried out in a reptile-suit, with a tail.
Pier Francesco Maestrini’s staging was attractive, but he opted for a cut in Act Two that blew a hole in the show’s larger theme, and then ignored a series of absolutely vital stage-directions, so that much of the ensuing action and imagery either seemed arbitrary or made no sense, and the leading characters appeared to have flipped out into unmotivated raving and garden-variety adultery, often behaving in ways that contradicted the plain meaning of the text. The antihero Enrico, for instance, was so hyperactive on his supposed deathbed that his miraculous cure, when it finally came, went for nothing; and the elf Rautendelein, whose artless empathy turns Enrico’s life upside-down and transforms his whole understanding of himself, was so busy with faërie trippings and skippings that it seemed unlikely she’d registered a word he said.
The physical production was a mixed bag. Juan Guillermo Nova’s steeply-raked unit set restricted movement and looked dangerous (the curtain-call was truly alarming), but his projections were breathtaking, especially in the all-important apparition of Enrico’s abandoned children, which was touching, creepy, and shockingly huge all at once, as it should be. The costumes, by Marco Nateri, were handsome, but they, too, interfered with essentials of action and character: the female immortals wore extraordinarily long medieval bell sleeves, so that much of their time onstage was spent finding their hands, and Rautendelein’s dress was so long in front that she had to make careful arrangements before she so much as took a step. I’m not being catty: this is the kind of distracting detail that can suck the life and feeling out a show, bit by bit.
Musically and poetically, La campana sommersa is a finely-wrought, deeply-affecting thing that ought to teeter between epiphany and heartbreak at virtually every moment, but in this production the only things that really struck home were l’Ondino’s encomium to Rautendelein, and Enrico’s death-scene, and in both cases, two people just sat down, sat still, and talked to one another. I have already mentioned Michael Chioldi; in the final scene Brandie Sutton (Rautendelein) and Marc Heller (Enrico, standing in for an indisposed Fabio Armiliato) came close to the same level, working with apparently effortless simplicity. They had to contend with Maestrini’s staging, which here, again, got overactive and hashed Guastalla’s stage-directions to no apparent purpose. Still, there are few things in musical theatre more touching, or more unsettling, than Enrico’s dying words: “The Sun! But the night is long…” This was beautifully done, and deeply moving.
It’s good to see this show, at long last. Let’s hope it sticks this time.
La Campana Sommersa presented by New York City Opera in cooperation with Fondazione Teatro Lirico di Cagliari on March 31, April 1, 4 and 5, 2017 at Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Rose Hall. Music by Ottorino Respighi; libretto by Claudio Guastalla, based on the play Die Versunkene Glocke by Gerhart Hauptmann. Conductor: Ira Levin; stage direction by Pier Francesco Maestrini; scenic and video design by Juan Guillermo Nova; costume design by Marco Nateri; lighting design by Susan Roth; New York City Opera Orchestra and Chorus, with L’Orchestra del Teatro Lirico de Cagliari. Cast: Brandie Sutton (Rautendelein), Marc Heller (Enrico), Michael Chioldi (L’Ondino), Glenn Seven Allen (Il Fauno), Kristin Sampson (Magda), Philip Cokorinos (Il Curato), Renata Lamanda (La Strega), Joanna Mongiardo (La prima Elfe), Sharin Apostolou (La second Elfe), Magda Garner (La terza Elfa), Darren K. Stokes (Il Maestro), Alok Kumar (Il Barbiere), Daria Capasso (Il primo Bimbo), Kadin Houck-Loomis (Il second Bimbo), Josh Walker (Un Nano).
Cover: (l. to r.) Michael Chioldi, Brandie Sutton, Glenn Seven Allen in ‘La Campana Sommersa;’ photo: Sarah Shatz / New York City Opera.