Composer: Ottorino Respighi
Conductor: Ira Levin
Director: Pier Francesco Maestrini
Brandie Sutton: Rauthendelein
Marc Heller: Enrico
Glenn Seven Allen: The Faun
Kristin Cokorinos: Magda
The New York City Opera’s long and much lauded tradition of offering mostly little known operas performed by up-and-coming singers was an absolute godsend for opera buffs who needed more excitement than the often fancy but even more often predictable productions at the Met. So a lot of us are extremely pleased that, after a somewhat short but still too long hiatus, the NYCO is back and still presenting obscure but deserving works, including La campana sommersa of Ottorino Respighi, a composer more rightfully famous for his remarkably evocative tone poems.
I had purposely bought my ticket to hear much established Italian tenor Fabio Armaliato, whom I had found memorable as Caravadossi back in Vienna several years ago. Unfortunately, the man had the nerve to take ill for the two performances he was supposed to be in – Sinuses can truly be a terrible thing to have for a singer – but fortunately Marc Heller, the other tenor singing Enrico’s part during the four-performance run, was well, ready, available and willing to fill in. Therefore, it is with still plenty of confidence that we all sat down on Tuesday night in Time Warner Center’s wonderful Rose Theater.
Inspired by the German poetic play Die versunkene Glocke, the narrative of La campana sommersa revolves around a married-with-children church bell-maker who is rescued from dying by a water sprite, follows her into the woods, and lives to regret it. The moral of the story can be summed up as "Do not fall for the irresistible fairy, even if she provides free and amazingly effective healthcare". It sounded all a bit far-fetched, and of course the uneasy encounter between fairies and humans cannot fail to remind regular concert-goers of Rusalka, but most operas are about suspension of disbelief anyway, so we suspended it.
As the main character Rautendelein, soprano Brandie Sutton had the daunting challenge of impersonating an insouciant elf who doubles as a de facto femme fatale, and she brilliantly pulled it off with a powerful and ravishing voice that made even the most over-extended arias – and there were quite a few of those – simply fly by. This mighty asset of hers easily soared over the orchestra and just as easily put Enrico in her pocket in no time (although with a little help from her magic broth). Add to that a real stage presence, convincing acting chops and seemingly boundless energy, and you have a genuine star in the making.
Tenor Marc Heller's Enrico may not have been the sharpest knife in the drawer on that stage, but he was still a good guy at heart, well-meaning but understandably blinded by Rautendelein's overwhelming power of attraction. And once the honeymoon was over, things went dreadfully downhill for the poor guy. Heller's singing was unfailingly articulate and resounding; moreover, he was also able to expertly tone it down and project just the right amount of softness when needed.
One of the forest’s most beguiling creatures, the king of the frogs L'Ondino had the lustrous voice of baritone Michael Chioldi and never missed an opportunity to announce his presence loud and clear with his signature "brekekekex".
Still in the magic kingdom, tenor Glenn Seven Allen was a visually dazzling faun, complete with goat horns, a green upper body, red furry legs and fancy cloven hooves. Oh, and he could sing too, and very well at that.
Back in the real world, soprano Kristin Cokorinos also made a very strong impression in the relatively small part of Magda, Enrico’s wife, with richly nuanced singing and a key role in the unfolding drama.
The attractive production was divided between a fantasy world, which was bursting with bright colors and rather eye-popping outfits, and the real world, which was matter-of-factly, but nicely represented by a large rustic house, including the de rigueur burning fireplace, a traditional family, and a bunch of additional kids running around. Those conventional sets were not very inventive, but totally appropriate and well designed.
Some videos were put to excellent use when creating a beautifully lit, endlessly mysterious forest, but others much less so when showing the bell sinking in the lake (redundant), the mother drowning (gratuitous), and Enrico's two over-sized children bringing him a chalice filled with their mother's tears (trying too hard at being innovative). Not to mention that the screen on which some of those videos were projected remained in front of the stage for the entire duration of Acts 3 and 4, which created a Bretchian distance that was probably not intended and was definitely not welcome.
If Pier Francesco Maestrini did not hold back on splashy colors when staging the opera, maestro Levin certainly did not hold back on splashy colors when conducting the orchestra either. All together, the musicians from the Theatro Lirico di Cagliari Orchestra and from the City Opera Orchestra were more than capable of delivering a consummate performance, and they did brilliantly succeed in making the lushly lyrical score sing to high heaven.
The bottom line is that, while too substantial to be a mere trifle, La campana sommersa is not accomplished enough to become a classic. But the experience was still much enjoyed. A young woman a few seats away from me confided to her friend during intermission that she was finding it “weird, but loving it”, and an older woman ahead of me as we were leaving was wondering aloud why the Met does not “do operas like that”. So we shall call it a success.