Ottorino Respighi - La bella dormente nel bosco
Teatro Lirico di Cagliari 2017
Donato Renzetti, Leo Muscato, Veta Pilpenko, Angela Nisi, Antonio Gandía, Vincenzo Taormina, Shoushik Barsoumian, Lara Rotili, Claudia Urru, Enrico Zara, Nicola Ebau
Ottorino Respighi's La bella dormente nel bosco (The Sleeping Beauty in the Woods) is unusual and largely unheard of because it wasn't strictly composed as a traditional opera, but as a puppet theatre opera. Whether that has any bearing on the quality of the opera doesn't show, and certainly not in this Cagliari production directed by Leo Muscato. First performed in 1922 and revised in 1934, it comes across rather as colourful and as engaging as any other fairy-tale based opera.
Considering the potential it offers in it's surprising that Sleeping Beauty hasn't been a more popular choice of fairy-tale to set to an opera. It has a strong layout and variety of scenes that are sure to provide drama and entertainment, and that's certainly been borne out at least in ballet. Respighi clearly recognises that potential and introduces ballet as one of the elements that he incorporates quite successfully into this rich blend of music, drama, magical fairy-tale, panto, singing and dancing. Perrault's fairy tale is such that there should be no limits to expression and the composer uses everything at his disposal. As indeed does the director Leo Muscato here.
The opening is a good example of how the story can be enriched, the opera opening indeed in the woods, where the animals of the forest are the first to learn about the birth of the princess from the king's page. The animal noises and gossiping of the creatures puts one in mind of Janacek's The Cunning Little Vixen and if you're looking for a model to engage children and tap into deeper sentiments, that's not a bad example to follow. Muscato's production design captures the tone well here, allowing the colour to flow from this into colourful arrival of the fairies in a semi-ballet sequence, using full-stage projections of magical dust sparkle as the fairies bestow their gifts on the princess. It's utterly enchanting.
The arrival of the Green Fairy casting her curse brings an edge of pantomime to the proceedings, which isn't out of place either in a piece devised originally as puppet theatre. The wonderful opportunities for colour and invention are not neglected in the subsequent scenes which put the emphasis on spindles and weaving, using young children as human spindles that are paraded through the court on their banishment by decree of the king. This is elaborated on further in the next scene, where huge balls of yarn and a weave decorate the set that will entrap the princess, and in the giant mice that bear the sleeping beauty funeral-like into the court when all medical efforts to revive her have been exhausted.
The story of La bella dormente nel bosco is as magical on its own account and it can certainly be enhanced by a creative production like this, but that shouldn't preclude some musical enchantment. For his part, Leo Muscato judges the balance perfectly in the scene setting, in the colours, in the traditional costumes, but there's a suspicion that it may all be dazzle and sparkle to enliven what can seem like a lovely but unadventurous composition that rather mechanically runs through all the expected situations in a compact 90 minute opera.
Perhaps one shouldn't expect much of a score written originally for a puppet theatre, but puppet theatre is a valid artform in some places in Europe and Respighi takes the commission seriously and duly delivers. The orchestration is evidently reduced with some piano led arrangements, but this allows occasional solo instruments to leap out beautifully and, when required, to still provide surprisingly big sweeping arrangements. Respighi even takes into account the 300 years that pass while Beauty is Sleeping and introduces some modern Gershwin jazz-like touches into Act III.
Far from academic, it's easy to get lost in the beautiful music and it's lovingly conducted by Donato Renzetti. If it never really dazzles thrills or excites, it certainly has the capacity to enchant and that's exactly what you want from a fairy-tale opera. The singing too has its challenges even none of the roles are large enough to attract starry performances, with much doubling-up and playing of multiple roles. Shoushik Barsoumian stands out however as the good Blue Fairy and Angela Nisi as the Principessa. La bella dormente nel bosco may not be the most obvious choice of revival for the under-represented Respighi, but it's a good popular choice by Cagliari, and one must hope that it leads to others being revived.
The Naxos Blu-ray release is region-free, with subtitles in Italian, English, German, Japanese and Korean. It's not a long opera, running to under 90 minutes, so it fits comfortably onto a BD25 disc. The HD image quality is fine, just lacking that fine clarity when there is movement. The usual PCM stereo and DTS MA 5.1 surround options are there and sound great here for the lighter touches, the solo instruments and broader sweeps. There are no extra features, but the booklet provides information on the history of the work and there is a synopsis.
Links: Teatro Lirico di Cagliari