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Ottorino RESPIGHI (1879-1936)
La Campana sommersa (The Sunken Bell) - opera in four acts (1925-27)
Margherita Carosio (soprano) - Rautendelein
Rita Malatrasi (soprano) – Magda
Lucia Danieli (mezzo) – La Strega
Umberto Borso (tenor) - Enrico 
Tommaso Frascati (tenor) – Il fauno
Rolando Panerai (baritone) - Ondino
Plinio Clabassi (bass) – Il curato
Pierluigi Latinucci (baritone) – Il maestro
Angelo Mercuriali – Il barbiere 
Orchestra Sinfonica e Coro Di Milano delle RAI/Franco Capuana
rec. 11 July 1956, Milan
GREAT OPERA PERFORMANCES GOP66.360 [71:20 + 65:38]



Ian Lace has provided an excellent account of Respighi’s intriguing opera La Campana sommersa for MusicWeb readers and I won’t duplicate the valuable information he has provided.
 
I can’t, though, resist adding one further allusion to the opera, which I recently came across. Ian Lace gives an account of the opera’s American premiere. In the issue of the magazine Time, dated 3 December 1928, is a further account of that occasion:

“Last week La Campana Sommersa, the music by Ottorino Respighi to a libretto by Claudio Guastalla taken from Hauptmann’s play, had its U.S. premiere at the Metropolitan Opera House, Manhattan. Rautendelein was still its inspiration, Heinrich [Enrico] still the heckled human. And for it all Respighi had made lovely, lyric music. But operatic singers, operatic trappings rarely enhance a poetic mood. Soprano Elisabeth Rethberg as Rautendelein managed her bulk skilfully, sang difficult music easily, spent clear high notes lavishly. But her appearance, her acting left little illusion. Nor could Giovanni Martinelli forget he was a tenor for the sake of the bellcaster. Dramatically it was Baritone Giuseppe de Luca in a minor role who served best. As Nickelmann [i.e. Ondino] he never once stepped out of the well, just poked up his moss-covered head, beat his webbed hands against the side. Yet when with a ‘Brekekekex’ he lost Rautendelein, the audience was sorrier than it ever was for Heinrich. And it was happier for the ‘Brekekekex’ that won her back than for any of her flawless cadenzas.
 
The composer had the ovation. A sturdy, middle-aged Italian, Respighi had come to the U.S. especially for the premiere. Only in Heaven, he announced after the general rehearsal, could one hope for so perfect a production as the Metropolitan’s. The Metropolitan audience tried to return the compliment, called him again and again before the curtain. For critics The Sunken Bell was commendable, if unimportant, an opera to make one pleasant evening, if scarcely half a dozen.”

 “Commendable, if unimportant …” … Well, I’d suggest that La Campana sommersa deserves more than such damnation by faint praise. It is a thematically rich work, full of attractive music. At the thematic level it presents, amongst other things that “conflict of orthodox Christian faith with older, more pagan beliefs as represented by the fairy folk” which Ian Lace discerns as one of its themes. The opera is made up of a number of dualities, such as those between human and fairy worlds, between stable married love and the amorous possibilities of the alien and unknown, between art and craft and so on. It can also be seen as a study in the destructive possibilities of an absolute commitment to the demands of the imagination. At the level of plot it is structured around acts of choice, and their consequences, made by Rautendelein the fairy-maiden and Enrico, the bell-caster. Its fable of destruction is built upon two love interlocking love triangles: that in which Rautendelein is the desired of both Ondino and Enrico and that in which Enrico is married to Magda and infatuated with Rautendelein.
 
Musically, La Campana sommersa is full of reminders of the Respighi of the famous orchestral tone poems. The vocal writing at times suggests the influence of Puccini and belongs broadly in the Verismo tradition. Plot and theme are not allowed to halt for the sake of musical set pieces. There are some more dualities here – as Verismo meets fairy tale and as triumphantly Italian musical language and syntax meet a narrative which is decidedly Germanic. But that particular duality – of Italian musical language and Northern European text often seemed to bring out the best in Respighi (as in his settings of Shelley and of Scottish songs, for example) and it certainly does so here.
 
Suffice it to say that the opera contains some magical music – and that at least some of the magic survives on this 1956 performance, presumably originally a radio broadcast. There are cuts in the score and the recorded sound inevitably falls well short of modern standards. The standard of the singing is variable. At her best Margherita Carosio - who as a 19 year old sang with Chaliapin in London! - was a fine lyric soprano. She made her debut at La Scala in 1929. At the time of this recording she was, by my reckoning, approaching fifty and within three years of her retirement. Unsurprisingly her voice is not what it once was and there are moments of unattractive stridency. Her voice at this stage of her career, in any case, was altogether too mature, too full of lived human experience, for her to be fully suited to this particular role, to the vocal embodiment of Rautendelein, the elf-maiden innocent of the ways of the human world. In my experience of his work Umberto Bosso seems always to have been a reliable and highly competent tenor and that is very much the case here. Some of his contributions – notably in his duets with Magda and Rautendelein are very commendable indeed, delicate when necessary and pretty powerful, without rant, when called upon to be so. He can be genuinely moving; this is a fine interpretation of the role. Rolando Panerai makes a striking Ondino, and the lesser parts are all sung decently (and before anyone else makes the joke I was tempted to make, there really is a wine called Tommaso Frascati – or at any rate San Tommaso Frascati – a dry yellow wine from the Lanuvian hills). The orchestral writing, so full of richly balanced orchestral colours, needs a better recorded sound than it gets here if it is to be fully appreciated.
 
I am almost always fascinated by live operatic recordings from the archives, whether they come from the opera house or the radio studio. They give one the chance to hear singers who are otherwise just names in reference books; they give one the chance to hear singers of the ‘second rank’ (often very good – we know how fickle fame can be) or to hear singers in repertoire with which they are not normally associated. This recording of La Campana sommersa is well worth hearing for these and for other reasons, or if you have a special interest in Respighi or any of the featured singers. For a ‘mainstream’ performance in good modern sound a far better choice is the recording conducted by Friedemann Layer on Accord 476 1884.
 
Glyn Pursglove
 



 


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