By ANTHONY TOMMASINI
During 70 adventurous if sometimes financially shaky years, the old New York City Opera regularly presented overlooked, even forgotten works. That valued aspect of its mission has been embraced by the management team that has been attempting to reconstitute the company.
The latest such venture came on Friday with a new production of a real rarity: Ottorino Respighi’s “La Campana Sommersa” (“The Sunken Bell”), at the Rose Theater at Jazz at Lincoln Center. First performed in Hamburg, Germany, in 1927, the opera is a symbolist fantasy about a bell maker who is fatally changed by an encounter with the fairy realm. The staging, which uses storybook sets and costumes and inventive video elements, is produced in cooperation with the Teatro Lirico di Cagliari of Sardinia, Italy.
Respighi is best known by far for composing cinematically colorful tone poems, especially “Pines of Rome.” He mostly kept his distance from the modernist experiments that swept through Europe in his day. But, as this opera’s often-alluring score reveals, Respighi was attuned to works by Puccini, Debussy and Richard Strauss. And “La Campana Sommersa” is shot through with hints of Wagner, too.
For all the surface richness of the music, stretches of this four-act opera feel thin, with soaring melodies that go on too long and melodramatic passages in which Respighi only glances at the more disturbing elements of the drama, which warns of the complications that can arise when the supernatural and mortal worlds mingle. Still, I was delighted to hear it, and impressed by the dedicated, very strong singers who took on demanding roles they are not likely to have opportunities to repeat. The conductor, Ira Levin, drew out the lush orchestral colors and vivid evocations — of prancing elves and such — that course through the work. (For this run, the City Opera Orchestra is joined by players from the Cagliari house.)
With an Italian libretto adapted from a German play, the story begins in a mysterious meadow: fairy territory that will be familiar to audiences who have recently seen Dvorak’s “Rusalka” at the Metropolitan Opera. The production, directed by Pier Francesco Maestrini, uses scrims and screens to project videos that depict dense forests, cliffs and waterfalls.
Rautendelein, an elf-girl lolling dreamily near a deep well, is visited by the rambunctious Faun, who is annoyed that humans keep encroaching on the meadow to build their churches. He brags to her about overturning a cart that was transporting an enormous bell to a new church. The bell plunged to the depths of a lake, in the process injuring the bell maker, the earnest Enrico. When the dazed Enrico appears, Rautendelein, curiously touched by his sadness, decides to follow him into the mortal world.
The soprano Brandie Sutton brings a radiant, agile voice and tender, expressive touches to Rautendelein — a ravishing performance. The role of Enrico combines wistful, sometimes befuddled lyricism with feisty bursts that seem modeled on Wagner’s Siegfried. The muscular-voiced tenor Marc Heller met the demands impressively. (Fabio Armiliato, once a mainstay at the Metropolitan Opera, was to have sung Enrico on Friday but fell ill. Mr. Heller, already scheduled for two of the four performances, stepped in.)
Rautendelein finds the dying Enrico at home with Magda, his devoted wife (the rich-toned soprano Kristin Sampson), and his two children. When he’s alone, she magically cures him. Now afire with strange confidence, Enrico leaves his family and takes up with Rautendelein in the mountains, where he imagines himself a sun god and drives a team of fauns to create colossal bells for a great temple. In the opera’s most poignant scene, Enrico’s children, depicted in video images as towering, grief-stricken figures, come to the mountains bearing a cup with the tears of their mother, who has drowned herself in the lake.
Standouts among the large cast include the tenor Glenn Seven Allen as a bare-chested, greenish-colored Faun, complete with furry legs and cloven hooves; and the baritone Michael Chioldi, who booms and blusters as Ondino, king of the frogs, covered in scales.
“La Campana Sommersa” may not be a great opera. But it’s a fascinating curiosity and a rewarding project for this reconfigured company, following its success in January with Bernstein’s “Candide,” directed by Harold Prince.