Culture Magazine

Opera Review: Ding, Dong, Ditch

By Superconductor @ppelkonen
New York City Opera dredges up La Campana Sommersa.
by Paul J. Pelkonen

Opera Review: Ding, Dong, Ditch

Ring-a-ding-ding. The titular La Campana sommersa (left) with L'Ondino (Michael Chiodi,
Rautandelein (Brandie Sutton, center) and Fauno (Glenn Seven Allen, in leggings) at New York City Opera.
Photo by Sarah Shatz for New York City Opera © 2017.

This week, the New York City Opera offered La Campana Sommersa ("The Sunken Bell") by Ottorino Respighi. This is an opera that has lain neglected at the bottom of the repertory for many years. A sensation in Hamburg, Germany when it premiered in 1927, La Campana made it as far as New York and the stage of the Metropolitan Opera. There, it sunk to the bottom of the repertory where it has lain undisturbed since 1929.
Michael Capasso, the impresario helming the revived New York City Opera, made a canny choice with this obscure work. This is a collaboration between the new NYCO and the Teatro Lirico di Cagliari, who brought sets, director, projections, costumes and an expanded roster of available Italian orchestra players to swell the ranks of the City Opera's orchestra and provide the thick textures needed for Respighi's music. Conducted by Ira Levin, they filled the Rose Theater in the Time Warner Center with a cathedral of orchestration, erecting flying buttresses of sound that the singers often failed to penetrate.
The libretto, based on an 1896 play by Gerhart Hauptman was an uneasy combination of German marschenoper and Italian verismo that grinds on for three hours and ultimately sank under its own weight. Somewhere in Italy, a church is being built, much to the concern of the local fauns, water-sprites and goblins that populate the woods. These worlds collide when a star-crossed romance starts  between a Rautandelein, a water-sprite and the mortal Maestro Enrico, the local bell-maker. Through the use of back-projections, scrims and digital imagery, this elaborate show moved from the bottom of a lake, to the forests, the broken church and the bellmaker's hellish, Nibelheim-like forge.
A long first act introduced the creatures of this woodland realm: a water-goblin (baritone) and a tenor Faun, both memorably costumed. The gnome is in love with Rautandelein, but in the best Wagnerian style, she does not return his affections. No, she saves the life of Enrico and restores his eyesight, starting the opera's actual plot. This dooms him to madness and damnation. At Saturday's performance, leather-lunged tenor Marc Heller sang the role of the hapless bellmaker, with a heroic instrument that was sometimes overwhelmed by a persistent and eruptive orchestra, and a character arc that (in the third act) included tossing a dwarf (that is, a little person) across the stage.
Brandie Sutton may be a genuine discovery: a lyric soprano with occasional bursts of spinto power. She is no doubt capable of great things, and this writer looks forward to her being given better music to sing. Here, her bright, sweet soprano was put to a sore test, having to sing heroic, Wagnerian duets with Mr. Heller in between rounds of trying on jewelry. Her redemption of sorts came in the final scene, where she briefly reconciled with a very aged Enrico in dulcet Wagnerian tones. In supporting roles, contralto Renata Lamanda and mezzo Kristin Sampson played the local witch and the bell-maker's wife. One appeared as needed, the other died offstage.
The best voices in this cast were Michael Chiodi as L'Ondino and Glenn Seven Allen as the Faun. Despite having to spend half of his stage time singing nonsense syllables ("Brekekekxet!") produced a noble tone and compelling presence. despite having to wrestle with claws, full head makeup and a long and unwieldy tail. Mr. Allen, a stalwart of smaller opera productions in New York, brought comic timing and a virile tenor. His comic skills were unimpaired despite wearing cloven hooves, vermilion goat-leggings and giant, curving horns for the entire evening. At one point, he pretended to urinate on L'Ondino's cave. (Why? We're not sure!)
It has been said elsewhere that Italian opera died on April 26, 1926, the date of the premiere of Puccini's final, incomplete opera Turandot. La campana is an indication of where the genre was heading, that death may have been well-timed. Respighi, a master of orchestration who is best remembered for sweeping orchestra workouts like The Pines of Rome knew how to build Wagnerian castles of sound but lacks the knack for a good, memorable tune. Without that to buoy the listener, La Campana Sommersa sinks back to the depths from whence it came.

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