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RESPIGHI: La Campana Sommersa

DVD Button Villari, Farcas, Gazheli; Borsi, Smimmero, Adami; Orchestra del Teatro Lirico di Cagliari, Renzetti. Production: Maestrini. Naxos 2.110571, 140 mins., subtitles

Beyond the Pines

This Respighi rarity, a late-verismo-era fairy tale, gets a spectacular production in Sardinia.

Recordings Campana Sommersa hdl 219
Bell view: the cast at Teatro di Cagliari
© Priamo Tolu
Recordings Campana Sommersa lg 219
Critics Choice Button 1015

THIS PRODUCTION OF Respighi’s 1927 opera La Campana Sommersa (The Sunken Bell) features a spectacularly conceived and well-executed presentation of a difficult, sprawling work. Based on Gerhart Hauptmann’s Symbolist play Der Versunkene GlockeCampana tells a familiar story of ill-fated yet redemptive love between two worlds. Rautendelein, a female elf, rescues Enrico, a mortal bell-maker, from death. She falls in love with him, he falls in love with her, and he abandons his wife and children to live with her among a coterie of mythical woodland friends—elves, centaur-like Fauns and an amphibious lizard known as the Ondino. As in Dvorˇák’s Rusalka and Hans Christian Andersen’s Little Mermaid, this new living situation doesn’t turn out well for either of them, though here death does bring the tortured bell-maker some semblance of a peaceful (if not traditionally happy) ending. 

Director Pier Francesco Maestrini does his best to make sense of the convoluted plot. Rather than iron out the wrinkles, he leans into the melodrama and mythology, which makes this fantastical world almost believable. At the surface of his production is the very modern notion of human beings encroaching upon natural resources, reflected in the contrast between the beautiful, lifelike forest and the lop-sided ruins of Enrico’s human home. 

The marvel of this production, from Teatro Lirico di Cagliari in Sardinia (exported to New York City Opera in 2017), is Juan Guillermo Nova’s superbly constructed and deftly employed projections. They blend seamlessly into the physical set pieces (which he also designed) and look three-dimensional. These are not the practical, budget-saving solutions that projected backdrops often appear to be. They are artistically exquisite and help create the bewitching world of Maestrini’s production. 

In creating this world, Maestrini is aided by Respighi’s lush, dramatic, late-Romantic score. The powerful orchestrations are Wagnerian in scope, complete with a forging scene at the beginning of Act III that has more in common with Siegfried than with Trovatore,the dramatic orchestral palette reflecting both Debussy (certain motivic passages recall Prélude à l’Après-midi d’un Faune) and Puccini, especially the passionate high drama of Acts II and III. 

As Rautendelein, soprano Valentina Farcas is the one member of this mostly Italian cast who soars above the unique challenges of Respighi’s score to inhabit the entrancing world of this production. She sings this difficult role, which is part coloratura and part full-blooded lyric soprano, with a warm, robust, rounded sound, without a single blemish or sharp edge. She transforms herself completely from naïve sprite in Act I to the heartbreaking angel of redemption in Act IV. Her Enrico, Angelo Villari, sings with admirable ardor but a persistent tremolo that compromises his pitch throughout his voice, except for his easy, secure top. Singing Enrico’s wife, Magda, Maria Luigia Borsi elicits sympathy despite the hard, inflexible quality of her instrument. Thomas Gazheli, as the Ondino, an amphibious creature who parallels the Water Sprite in Rusalka, sings with Italianate bronze and Wagnerian power but little finesse or sympathy. The most successful male cast member is Filippo Adami, who sings the mischievous Faun with a bright, tightly controlled lyric tenor. 

The Orchestra del Teatro Lirico di Cagliari, led by Donato Renzetti, gives a sweeping, fearless reading of Respighi’s full-throttle score, matching the passion and conviction with which Maestrini and his creative team approached this late-verismo rarity. —Steven Jude Tietjen 



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