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Love in Mythical Forests

New York
Jazz at Lincoln Center - Frederick P. Rose Hall
03/31/2017 -  & April 1*, 4, 5, 2017
Ottorino Respighi: La campana sommersa
Brandie Sutton (Rautendelein), Marc Heller*/Fabio Armiliato (Enrico), Michael Chioldi (L’Ondino), Glenn Sven Allen (Il Fauno), Kristin Sampson (Magda), Philip Cokorinos (Il Curato), Renata Lamanda (La Strega), Joanna Mongiardo, Sharin Apostolou, Magda Gartner (The Elves), Darren K. Stokes (The Master), Alok Kumar (The Barber), Daria Capasso, Kadin Houck-Loomis (The Spectres of Children), Josh Walker (A Dwarf)
New York City Opera Chorus, New York City Opera Children’s Chorus, New York City Opera Orchestra, L’Orchestra del Teatro Lirico di Cagliari, Ira Levin (Conductor)
Pier Francesco Maestrini (Stage Director), Juan Guillermo Nova (Scenic and Video Designer), Marco Nateri (Costume Designer), Susan Roth (Lighting Designer)
Produced by New York City Opera in cooperation with Fondazione Teatro Lirico di Cagliari

B. Sutton, M. Chioldi, G. S. Allen (© Sarah Shatz)

“Every thing in Gerhart Hauptmann’s admirable fairy-drama seemed musical to me – in each scene, in each character whether real; or unreal, in that strange mixture of humanity and fable, I felt music take wing.”
Ottorino Respighi on The Sunken Bell

The newest production by New York City Opera is so gorgeous, opulent, melodious with such vivid music that one can almost forget that the story is preposterous.

Even by operatic standards!

To wit: A pretty little elf is getting twitchy about living in her sylvan paradise with fauns, witches and a lizard to whom she is betrothed. So when she sees an injured human bell-maker, whose bell was thrown into a lake by a mischievous sprite, she finds an opportunity to go into the real world by curing him. He, on the other hand, wishes to join these faeries in the forest, so they both go back.

So they compromise...sort of. Instead of gamboling with his little friends, the bell-ringer creates a hot, sweaty 19th Century furnace (albeit with a background waterfall) to build a church. Plus, this Industrial Age sadists treats his sprites like slaves, kicks a dwarf and kicks out a disapproving minister.

And our pretty little elf? She finds his capitalist methods quite delightful, and says she loves him, until the ghosts of his children (did I mention he was married with kids?) tell him that his mother is in the lake with that bell, a suicide. So the bell-ringer says he now hates the elf, so she goes back to marry the lizard.

But just before he dies, she pops out of the lizard-hole (something like Oscar the Grouch coming out of his garbage can), gives him a kiss, then pops down to her obviously randy lizard lover.

And curtain.

The miracle of Respighi’s opera, though, is that not for a single minute did I consider leaving or leaving. Story aside (and Respighi, of pantheistic nature himself, felt it a profound tale of Nature versus Church), the composer had written music of utmost enchantment, along with orchestration which could rival his great symphonic poems.

Nothing was more stunning than our bell-maker standing on a heath berating the Minister, with music rising into brass choirs cusping on both Dies Irae and a choir of bells. Our elf’s aria in the Second Act was both romantic and unsettling, telling the bell-ringer that she was not dangerous.

And in the third act, we had a love scene–typical for late 19th Century Italian opera, though written in 1927–distinguished by a huge crescendo in the orchestra, again a trademark of Respighi’s mastery.

One could say that we had a contradiction here: the music was gorgeous in the Verismo style, the style of Leoncavallo and Mascagni. Yet the setting was unearthly, a fantasy of forests and cataracts, spectral visions of clouds and sunlight. One could admire unreservedly the great lyrical singing of Marc Heller, the bell-maker. Yet so often he seemed to be singing…well, operatic music, when one wanted more fairy-style music.

Ravel did it in his L’Enfant and les Sortilèges, Debussy certainly achieved this striking never-never land in Pelléas, Rimsky-Korsakov (Respighi’s teacher) and even Janácek composed operas which brought us to other universes.

Respighi comes so close here, yet always he was flung back to writing Italian Grand Opera, and we are back in the opera house marveling at the brilliant production, our willing sense of disbelief falling into the lizard-well.

Yet still, this production of the NYC Opera Company is worthy of all the old City Center innovative, forward-looking productions of yore. (The City Center is now named after a billionaire reactionary troglodyte, so I won’t repeat the name.)

M. Heller, B. Sutton (© Sarah Shatz)

In the sets and costumes by Juan Guillermo Nova and Susan Roth respectively, we had that magical forest and its creatures. The lizard was truly reptilian, the faun could have been Nijinsky (Glenn Sven Allen was a physical marvel and a superb singer), our elf was sprite-like. And the sets not only had a Teutonic/Grimm Brothers/Watteau sylvan magic, but the video effects brought us ghosts and underwater caverns, the eponymous bell and elegiac brutality.

Nor could one ever belittle the singing. Mr. Heller was, yes, more Italianate than illusionary, but this is what Respighi wrote, so why fight it? Our lizard, Michael Chioldi, looks like he could catch flies, but his voice was stentorian. The Act II wife, Kristen Sampson gave a good picture of a Fräulein uncertain of her husband’s moods. Choruses and other characters were equally delightful.

And then we come to our elf, Rautendelein. (No elf should be stuck with such a name!). Brandie Sutton has the vocal cords of a bel canto soprano, but never with the heavy or tough arduousness of a typical star. Her voice was light, even in the heaviest music. Ms. Sutton’s movements, her lyricism, her feelings were both feminine and fairy-ish, and Respighi would have been stunned to hear such an paradigm of his heroine.

Finally conductor Ira Levin kept his baton firmly on his orchestra and his singers. It is a difficult score, moving between grand opera and Respighi’s dream imagery, yet is was accomplished without lagging, without a moment which wasn’t interesting.

And if a crab like me decides the story is feather-brained, never mind. It might not be the ideal choice, but when Brandie Sutton has to choose between a sick nasty old man and a healthy lizard, a soprano of such unalloyed beauty deserves whatever she desires. Libretto aside, this opera and this production almost attains Keats’ “Charm’d magic casements, opening on the foam/Of perilous seas, in faery lands forlorn.

Harry Rolnick



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