Monday, May 8, 2017

Nymphs, Fauns and Ubermensch

Respighi’s La campana sommersa
New York City Opera
Rose Theater
March 31, 2017

Elf-love seeks to turn an ordinary artisan into an Ubermensch
Photo credit: City Opera
A rarity came to the city in the form of Ottorino Respighi’s 1927 opera La campana sommersa – a poetic and highly symbolist fantasia. The sense of discovery was akin to that of experiencing Mascagni’s Iris last summer at Bard Summerscape. There is often a reason why so many works languish in obscurity. When dusted off with care, however, it turns out that some of the most minor of neglected works have much to recommend them and even demand another day in court.

The story begins amidst sylvan perfection during a building boom
Photo credit: City Opera
La campana sommersa opens in the manner of a fairy tale. We are in a mythical world populated by woodland creatures and nymphs, similar in tone and setting to the opening of Dvořák’s Rusalka. An amphibious being, known as l’Ondino, and a satyr, stunningly done up as half man, half goat, known as il Fauno, maraude around the landscape. Il Fauno boasts of having overturned a cart carrying a bell that was destined for one of the many new churches going up in the area. They’re in the midst of a building boom, which pleases the local wildlife none too much. As the titular campana sommersa suggests, the bell ends up at the bottom of the lake.

Feeling the pressure of gentrification, the woodland creatures send the bell below water
Photo credit: City Opera
The bell maker, Enrico, stumbles into the mythical woodland scene. Injured from the incident with the bell, Enrico elicits the loving regard of the elf Rautendelein. When his friends whisk him away for care in the human world, Rautendelein is overcome by the desire to join him there. So far we are squarely in the fantastic world of an opera like Rusalka, with many of its plot points intact, including its interdimensional romance.

But the drama here is surprisingly rich with a number of themes, most predominantly symbolic explorations of the contrast between the religion of mortal men and the natural order of things. After Enrico returns to his family in Act II and is magically restored to health by Rautendelein, Respighi takes us decidedly into Wagnerian territory. The act closes with a superhuman gesture on the part of the reinvigorated bell maker. Enrico is now ready to rise up and take on the gods, as Act III finds him living amidst the immortal creatures of the woodlands under an ubermensch delusion. 

The wife and kids our Ubermensch leaves behind
Photo credit: City Opera
A bit like Tannhäuser in an artisanal rather than poetic key, Enrico is forging bells (rather than writing verses) in a fit of hyperproductivity. He has a new church to fit out now. It’s a temple dedicated to a new religion of his own creation, one that will enrich all of humankind. His hubris earns him the disfavor of the actual powers of divinity that find a way to torment him with visions of the children he has abandoned and the wife who has drown herself in his absence. The bell at the bottom of the lake rings which brings him back to his senses. He curses his immortal elf lover and returns to the world of mortal responsibility.

Master of the new race makes plans for his new church
Photo credit: City Opera
Moving back into Rusalka territory, the final act concludes with Enrico seeking out his beloved Rautendelein (incidentally now married to the lizard-like Ondino) and he expires in her arms after one last kiss.

Maestro Ira Levin at the helm of the New York City Opera Orchestra (with elements of the Orchestra del Teatro Lirico di Cagliari) led a forceful interpretation of Respighi’s score. In the intimate space of the Rose Theater in the Jazz at Lincoln Center complex on Columbus Circle, the audience was ensconced in a sound that was lush and direct. The orchestra transported us to an otherworldly place.

The projections were always extraordinary
Photo credit: City Opera
Pier Francesco Maestrini’s stage direction in this visionary production was evocative. From start to finish the production took us to a parallel universe. There wasn’t a weak moment. Scenic and video designer Juan Guillermo Nova contributed a series of subtle yet highly effective animations and video projections were next level. The Met has dabbled in this kind of theatrical technology but rarely so successfully.

We were hoping to hear tenor Fabio Armiliato in the role of Enrico but a pernicious sinus infection deprived us of his presence. Instead we got the tenor from the second cast, Marc Heller, who, it turned out, was the weak link in the cast, in my opinion. His was the only voice that was genuinely washed out by the orchestra. Heller just doesn’t have the strength to ride the wave of Respighi’s bold orchestral statements, laden with horns and big brassy gestures.

Soprano Brandie Sutton reinvigorates the mortal object of her affection
Photo credit: City Opera
Soprano Brandie Sutton as Rautendelein was strong and mysterious and full of playful desire. Baritone Michael Chioldi in the role of l’Ondino was one of the evening’s strengths. As some sort of water deity he had an authoritative and frolicking sound. Constantly dispensing with absurd locutions like “Brekekekex,” his presence was at once light and full of humor but also grounding and strong.

At the same level was tenor Glenn Seven Allen who sang the equally symbolic role of il Fauno. His instrument is loud and booming and masculine but warm and has an inviting quality that perfectly suits such a strange character. He both beckons your attention and repulses it since he is after all some kind of a horrific freak of nature usually known for having his way with water nymphs other spritely female creatures of the wild. All of the costumes were out of this world but Allen’s in particular was extraordinary.

L'Ondino and il Fauno commiserate over the changing landscape
Photo credit: City Opera
The whole production right down to the costumes was otherworldly. It was a feast of the senses. Entirely slavishly faithful to all of the phantasmagoria of the original libretto, the co-production with the Teatro Lirico di Cagliari was immaculately executed. The costumes were phenomenal and the use of projections for all of the backdrops, and even often foregrounds, transported the audience to a magical mystical place, the space of Teutonic myths where symbols collide.

A perfectly crafted and stunningly executed imaginative rarity, La campana sommersa was the most exciting and polished production to date staged by the newly revived New York City Opera.

Lei & Lui

Italian violinist, composer and musicologist
Ottorino Respighi (1879-1936)

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