RESPIGHI La campana sommersa (Renzetti)
Successful during Respighi’s lifetime in both Europe and the United States, La campana sommersa was first performed in Hamburg in 1927. Since the Second World War, however, its outings have been infrequent and its most recent staging, directed by Pier Francesco Maestrini and shared between the Teatro Lirico di Cagliari and the New York City Opera, has provoked differing critical responses as to the opera’s worth.
Its source is Gerhart Hauptmann’s 1896 play Die versunkene Glocke, a Symbolist fairy tale, much indebted to Maeterlinck and Wagner. The Undine legend lurks behind the doomed central relationship between the elf Rautendelein and the bell-maker Heinrich (Enrico in Claudio Guastalla’s libretto), though Hauptmann expands his material into an overloaded parable about humanity’s desecration of nature and the perilous nature of creativity itself.
The sunken bell of the title is Enrico’s masterwork, which has slipped from its trestle before it can be raised or rung and fallen into a lake, wounding its maker in the process. Straying into one of those mysterious forests with which Symbolist literature abounds, Enrico encounters Rautendelein sitting, like Mélisande, by a well. Falling in love with him, she restores him to health, then becomes the inspiration for his unhinged attempt to build a temple to a new religion that links Christ with Balder (the Teutonic god of light), forcing the spirits of nature, Alberich-like, into slave labour in the process, and eventually driving his neglected wife Magda to suicide. At this point, the sunken bell begins to toll from the depths of the lake, heralding both Enrico’s death and the gradual restoration of the natural order, to which the sorrowful Rautendelein returns.
According to Elsa Respighi, the opera’s composition, begun in 1925, entailed both ‘joyous exaltation and desperate crises’, and there can be little doubt that her husband lavished tremendous care on it. Ravishing string and woodwind textures evoke the natural world, in contrast to the baleful sounds, all low strings and growling brass, that indicate the invasive presence of humanity. Rearing ostinatos suggest Enrico’s fanaticism, and his bells toll in eerie imitation of their counterparts in Boris Godunov. There’s some exquisite writing for Rautendelein, a coloratura soprano, and her Rhinemaiden-ish trio of attendant Elves, while Enrico is an angst-ridden dramatic tenor, not unlike Otello. Beautiful though it is, though, the score fails to rescue the libretto from the symbolic weight under which it repeatedly buckles and the characters remain ciphers with whom it is almost impossible to empathise.
The Cagliari performance arouses mixed feelings, too. There are moments of sinister magic in Maestrini’s staging, which makes telling use of video, so that we see Enrico’s bell crash spectacularly into the lake and witness Magda’s Ophelia-like suicide, which Respighi and Guastalla kept offstage. Under Donato Renzetti, the orchestra sounds gorgeous, though the singing is uneven. Valentina Farcas, her coloratura wonderfully precise, makes an excellent Rautendelein and there are strong performances from Filippo Adami’s libidinous Faun, Thomas Ghazeli’s reptilian Ondino and Agostina Smimmero as the Witch, who deplores Rautendelein’s misguided fondness for mankind. Angelo Villari’s Enrico sounds handsome but strays off pitch in moments of anguish, however, while Maria Luigia Borsi’s Magda is squally throughout. The accompanying booklet, meanwhile, contains scholarly essays on Respighi’s career and the opera’s history but doesn’t provide a synopsis, which is deeply regrettable.