[Met Performance] CID:100330
United States Premiere

In the presence of the composer
La Campana Sommersa {1} Matinee ed. Metropolitan Opera House: 11/24/1928.
 (United States Premiere)
(Reviews)


Metropolitan Opera House
November 24, 1928 Matinee

United States Premiere
In the presence of the composer

LA CAMPANA SOMMERSA {1}
Respighi-Guastalla

Rautèndelein............Elisabeth Rethberg
Enrico..................Giovanni Martinelli
Witch...................Julia Claussen
Nickelmann..............Giuseppe De Luca
Magda...................Nannette Guilford
Pastor..................Ezio Pinza
Schoolmaster............Louis D'Angelo
Barber..................Giordano Paltrinieri
Faun....................Alfio Tedesco
Neighbor................Philine Falco
Elf.....................Aida Doninelli
Elf.....................Ellen Dalossy
Elf.....................Merle Alcock

Conductor...............Tullio Serafin

Director................Wilhelm von Wymetal
Designer................Joseph Urban

[Alternate title: The Sunken Bell.]

La Campana Sommersa received five performances this season.


Review of Lawrence Gilman in The New York Herald Tribune:

[Respighi] has draped the play in a rich voluminous tonal fabric - too voluminous, if not too rich. The opera is overlong. It would have benefited by a more compact and tauter handling on the part of both librettist and composer. There are not many operas that can hold our attention for three hours and a half, and "The Sunken Bell" is hardly one of them - the imaginative fervor of the music is not intense enough to accomplish that, the best and current of the drama are not full and powerful enough to bear us to the end without awareness of fatigue.

Mr. Respighi spins a multicolored tonal web. He has the Mediterranean instinct for song, and his lyric line is buoyant and sustained. The reservations that one must make are that his music lacks profile, and that he is never quite as eloquent as his subject cries for him to be - as you keep wanting him to be.

The Metropolitan performance is devoted, lavish, often eloquent. If one could wish for a Rautendelein less palpable than Mme. Rethberg's, more visually elfin, one could scarcely ask for a lovelier publishment of the music of the role. Mr. Martinelli as the Bell-Caster accomplished one of the most powerful characterizations he has ever given us here - a three-dimensional embodiment. Mr. DeLuca's Old Man of the Well was a masterpiece of comic grotesquerie. Miss Guilford's Magda sufficed, and so did Mme. Claussen's Witch and Mr. Tedesco's Faun.

The audience was enthusiastic, and summoned Mr. Respighi (who was present in the flesh, beaming amd Beethovenish of countenance) repeatedly to the stage.


Review of Irving Weil in the Musical America of December 1, 1928

THE SUNKEN BELL: Respighi, the Symphonist Reformed, at the Service of Opera

An Italian composer can no more resist the lure of opera than a German can help writing songs or a Frenchman a ballet at some time in his life. Not so many years ago, the group of high and hopeful spirits known then as Young Italy decided that enough opera had sprung up from Italian soil and that henceforth they would fondly cultivate nothing but symphonic gardens south of the Alps. Young Italy meant chiefly Ottorino Respighi and Ildebrando Pizzetti, Alfredo Casella and Francesco Malipiero. But, inescapably, they became Middle-Aged Italy and, inescapably, their symphonic gardens languished or grew in-around the old, luxuriant center-piece of opera.

Casella has kept to his early resolve with rather more fidelity than his fellows but even he has furtively approached the theatre in his "The Convent on the Water" and "The Jar." Malipiero has adopted the narcotic device of calling his pieces for the stage "dramatic episodes" and "symphonic drama." But Pizzetti and Respighi stopped deluding themselves quite some time ago and grasped the hand of lyric drama heartily and without further ado. Respighi, in his most recent operatic venture, picked a stage tale from Germany, Gerhard Hauptmann's "Die versunkene Glocke," had it converted into an Italian book as "La Campana Sommersa (The Sunken Bell) and wrote music for it that fits snugly within the Italian operatic tradition. Pizzetti, for his latest work, fashioned his own libretto and called it "Fra Gherardo."

The Respighi piece which not unnaturally found its first hearing in Germany (at Hamburg, just a year ago) was given its American premiere last Saturday afternoon by Mr. Gatti-Casazza at the Metropolitan Opera House-the second novelty of his season and a contrast in a thousand ways to the first, Richard Strauss' "The Egyptian Helen," Pizzetti's "Fra Gherardo" will come along later, probably in March.

There were none of the preliminary misgivings about "The Sunken Bell" that there had been over The Egyptian Helen. For one thing, the Metropolitan is indubitably far better equipped for the production of Italian opera than it is for anything made in Germany. Essentially, it is an Italian opera house, however brave and sincere its efforts to be cosmopolitan; and, for our part, we are glad enough that it is, after an observance of the workings and results in German and French opera houses. "The Sunken Bell," therefore, had the guaranty in New York of about as good a performance as it was likely to get and a vastly better one than either poorer singers or a poorer conductor, or both, were likely to give it somewhere else. The opera, in brief, had every chance to show what was in it.

And there was a great deal in it -enough, very likely, to make it hold its own for a while in this period of ephemeral things. As operatic music, it is an excellently effective piece of craftsmanship. Respighi has a keen and also a robust sense of dramatic values (something everyone would expect from the composer who could build up a climax like that in his suite, "The Pines of Rome") ; and this feeling for drama seize upon the Hauptmann story and makes the most of every opportunity that presents itself. There are sagging endurance tests in two of the four acts of the piece when the opportunities are pretty few, but the consequent longueurs are not unbearable; and of the other two acts one holds genuine charm and the other genuine power to touch the emotions.

It would be too much to say that the opera is highly original and quite too little that it is highly imitative. Respighi, to be sure, is a good bit of an eclectic here and there, for the inspiring fragrance of Italo Montemezzi's "The Love of Three Kings" is to be sensed in his music, Puccini colors his vocal line now and again, and Richard Strauss helps skim over again at least one difficult scene.
But in the main he contrives a musical expression for the stage action that, without being precisely idiomatic or even particularly individual, nonetheless emerges as his own. This is especially so in the opera's third act, the climax of the piece to which we have already referred, where the music pounds the drama at its audience in a way that alone should carry the whole work to success.

The stage tale is one of those fairy stories which the symbolists of the nineteenth century ( for Hauptmann, though still at work, is unmistakably (nineteenth century) loved to impregnate with new and supposedly profound. meaning. But symbolism, except in such pointedly direct and sparing use as Ibsen made of it in his most moving plays, seems now to be a needlessly, obscure and roundabout fashion in the drama. It is the Hauptmann of the involved symbolism of the "Hannele" mystery whom we find in "The Sunken Bell." Here is the struggle between Christianity and paganism, the incompatibility of genius and domesticity, of art and life. It is all presented like an underground stream, by inference, and it needs a continuously active divining rod to know it is there.

It is in the third act that Hauptmann's cunning is seen at its best whilst Respighi's climatic musical values reach highest levels. There is style on Respighi's part becoming the drama of struggle between the Priest and Heinrich, for the latter's idealistic purposes are rejected as heresy. Here, too, is the love scene between Heinrich and Rautendelein, a swift change of remarkably effective contrast to the music he had already employed for the duet between Priest and artist.

Drama, however, enters even more strikingly a moment later. The tide of passion is startlingly interrupted. Heinrich hears strangely familiar steps approaching and the wraiths of his two little children are seen, a nimbus illuminating each little head. They bear an urn holding their mother's tears and they speak her last words, for she has thrown herself into the lake. But this is not yet the end of the piled up drama, for now the sunken bell is heard tolling at the touch of Magda's dead hand. Heinrich, in revulsion, repulses his elfin love. Nickelmann, who has long desired her, gets her at last, except for a final leave-taking as Heinrich dies.

Respighi matches all this with music that strongly and craftily points it and intensifies it. Moreover, he writes with a gracious charm when nothing more than that is needed. His vocal line is always paramount-he is Italian to the bone. Consciously and deliberately he has subordinated his orchestral accompaniment until it is no more than an actual background. He is the reformed symphonist at the service of opera.

Is Well Produced

The Metropolitan production, except for a few relatively unimportant incongruities in lighting and stage appointments (such, for example, as a sky with beautifully moving clouds and a stationary moon) was an uncommonly good one. Joseph Urban's sets were ingenious and imaginative-a little too imaginative in spots, since such massive old giants of trees as he contrived for the Alpine uplands seemed a strangely robust growth where one usually finds only wind-stunted conifers.

Unquestionably the high order of effectiveness revealed in the presentation of the opera was due largely to Tullio Serafin, who rehearsed and conducted it, and to Wilhelm von Mymetal, who was in charge of the stage. Everybody in the cast seemed to have been vigorously and intelligently coached and Mr. Serafin did a beautiful job with the score.

The roles of Rautendelein and Heinrich were sung by Elisabeth Rethberg and Giovanni Martinelli. Mme. Rethberg managed to tax one's credulity remarkably little as the elfin creature of the story and was indeed a fetching figure, acting convincingly and quite without posturing or acrobatic fuss. A great deal of more than ordinarily difficult music falls to her part, for Respighi has written considerable ornamental song into it, and very aptly so in such moments as Rautendelein's incantations and other evidences of her magical powers. This florid music the soprano handled very well, if not brilliantly, and her singing in other respects had a notable fineness of texture and fitting expressive power. There are a couple of high Cs and one D to be taken care of, and these came off without mishap.

Mr. Martinelli got inside the skin of Heinrich with unexpected success. He did a painstaking and thoroughly efficient piece of acting in which one could believe-something that this generally too operatic tenor deserves much credit for. His voice occasionally turned up some rough edges in its lower reaches, but in the main his singing was clear and vigorous.

Giuseppe de Luca had the relatively small part of Nickelmann and he made it count with his customary ease. Ezio Pinza gave a touch of just the right sort of dignity to the role of the Priest, although his singing was not up to the best he can do. Nanette Guilford, the Magda, seemed to be unable to keep unsteadiness out of her tone. There should be a few words for the way Julia Claussen, Alfio Tedesco and Giordano Paltrinieri helped maintain the general excellence of the ensemble-particularly Mr. Tedesco for his Faun.


Review of Richard L. Stokes in The Evening World:

As Rautendelein, Mme. Rethberg has achieved so single a triumph that one may wonder why she hungered one moment after the tawdry role of the Egyptian Helen. It may be doubted whether any other soprano at the Metropolitan possesses the range, the coloratura agility, the dramatic stamina and the infinite correctness of ear demanded by this cruelly taxing role. There are intervals which approach dementia in their difficulty, and the singer must envisage them often without the least help from the orchestra. Quite unexpectedly, Mme. Rethberg contrived to offer no implausible counterfeit of Rautendelein in her phase as a sprite, and was less successful in her version as a peasant girl.

Mr. Martinelli's Heinrich was Italian to the last gesture and tone, but as such was a genuine success of manly acting and impassioned song. Mr. De Luca, as the Nickelmann, demonstrated again that he is an artist in any language whatsoever. Mr. Tedesco was rather heavy as the Faun and Mme. Claussen's Witch was completely lacking in illusion. Mme. Guilford impersonated Magda with temperament and energy, but did not prosper completely as to voice. Mr. Serafin's conducting was as usual brilliant, penetrating and eloquent.

If "The Sunken Bell" fails of popular success, the Metropolitan's direction cannot entirely be absolved. It was particularly unhappy with the pivotal episode - the apparition of the children and the knell of the sunken bell which was all too plainly just a metal tube struck with a hammer in the orchestra pit. The situation gained what effect it possessed from the artery-cracking pulsations which immediately afterward were alleged from the bass drum.

Far more damning is the fact that the opera should have been sung in German instead of Italian. The falsity existing between the subject matter and its vehicle was shown by the veracious ring with which the Teutonic word "Rautendelein" sprang from its context of Lombard vowels. Respighi's style is sufficiently international to have fitted a German version without the least sense of discrepancy. But the Metropolitan is to be complimented on having produced a modern opera which, if not "Göttermämmerung" or even "Tannhäuser," is quite as certainly not an "Aegytische Helena," a "Johnny Spielt Auf" or a "Turandot."


Cover of the score of Respighi's "La Compana Somersa."



Added Index Entries for Subjects and Names


Back to short citation(s).