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2.110655 - RESPIGHI, O.: Bella dormente nel bosco (La) [Opera] (Teatro Lirico di Cagliari, 2017) (NTSC)

Ottorino Respighi
La bella dormente nel bosco


While Ottorino Respighi’s fame rests today chiefly on his orchestral works, most notably Fontane di Roma (1914), Pini di Roma (1924) and Feste romane (1928), his output also includes a series of outstanding operas, of which Belfagor (1923), La campana sommersa (1927), Maria Egiziaca (1932) and La fiamma (1934) are probably the best known and which are certainly deserving of greater representation on stage and in recording. La bella dormente nel bosco, whose standard version dates from 1934 but whose genesis dates from long before, and of which there is also a posthumous reworking, stands somewhat outside this operatic line, being closer in spirit of the ballet La Boutique fantastique, the music for which (orchestral arrangements of Rossini), Respighi had completed in 1919 for Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes.

Respighi responded eagerly to the puppeteer Vittorio Podrecca’s request for a work, apparently, according to the composer’s widow, interrupting the composition of Belfagor to work on La bella dormente (though there is some doubt about this). Perrault’s tale was adapted and made into a libretto by the Turinese writer Gian Bistolfi; the libretto for Belfagor was by Claudio Guastalla, who became the composer’s collaborator for all his mature operas.

The original version of La bella dormente nel bosco was first performed at the Teatro Odescalchi in Rome on 13 April 1922, at that time, it is usually claimed, entitled La bella addormentata nel bosco

It was a three-act ‘musical fairy tale’ (fiaba musicale) derived from Charles Perrault’s tale La Belle aux bois dormant, published in 1689. Vittorio Podrecca (1883–1959) was the director of the Teatro dei Piccoli, a children’s theatre company which had become world famous and toured internationally. Podrecca’s productions were not merely staged dramas, but often also included a choir and instrumental ensemble, and this determined the small forces Respighi would use. It was conducted by Renzo Massarani (1898–1975), a student of the composer, who was also musical director of the Teatro dei Piccoli. The cast included the renowned Irish soprano Cissie Vaughan, who became Podrecca’s wife, and the mezzo-soprano Evelina Levi.

The revised version of the work was given its first performance at the Teatro di Torino on 13 April 1934 (though the composer’s widow claimed that it had been on 9 April), with its new title, La bella dormente nel bosco. No longer a work for a puppet theatre, this was a genuine opera in the sense that it was performed by singer-actors on the stage, but, according to the only surviving evidence of the first version, a reduction for voice and piano, changes in structural terms were minimal and, if suppositions concerning the composition of the original ensemble are to be deemed reliable, the orchestration would seem to be an amplification of the original.²

Respighi’s music for this fiaba is, precisely on account of not being a true opera, unconcerned with stylistic integrity. This is not to say it is a patchwork, precisely, because the composer’s own voice is always evident, not to mention his matchless orchestration. It is more a question of a stylistic eclecticism, brought deliberately to bear on a storyline that offers every opportunity for this kind of kaleidoscopic approach and which was, originally, emphasised by the fact of its being presented by puppets, whose very nature is to exaggerate human characteristics and feelings. If this is, self-evidently, the very antithesis of the verismo then so characteristic of Italian opera, it is equally interesting to note the gusto with which Respighi plunged into this artificial parallel universe with which Podrecca’s puppet world provided him.

That parallel universe enabled Respighi to do two things. Firstly, the opera is constructed of ‘closed’ numbers, strophic songs and dances, as befitting the initial project for a puppet work. Secondly, he is able to allude, both affectionately and ironically, in the direct fashion appropriate to this kind of nonnaturalistic opera, to the styles of many other composers, including Debussy, Puccini, Strauss, Stravinsky (especially Petrushka) and Wagner (especially at the appearance of the evil Green Fairy). There are also references to Baroque styles and to the ‘Nouveau styl’ (the last words of the opera) in the form of contemporary American music: the Princess and Dollar dance a cake-walk, and the fact that the Princess remains asleep for three centuries means that when she awakes, the final dance in celebration of this event can be a foxtrot.

None of this means, however, that Respighi’s opera is merely a pastiche. It takes a master to adopt and succeed in such an approach, not seeking merely to write a parody, but to construct a genuinely strong musical and dramatic narrative which is at the same time able to bring in references to the past, present and future; and Respighi, brilliant orchestrator and consummate lyrical melodist that he was, was indeed that master.

Ivan Moody

¹ Something denied by Giangiorgio Satragni in his essay ‘Il risveglio della Bella dormente nel bosco’ in the extensive programme for the performances of the work at the Teatro Lirico di Cagliari in February 2017, p. 11.

² The most recent research concerning this question may be found in Giangiorgio Satragni’s above-mentioned essay, pp. 10–11.



Act I

Scene 1

At the side of a lake

It is night. At the side of a lake, in the peaceful silence, we hear the song of the Nightingale and the Cuckoo and the croaking of the Frogs under the moon. Feet are heard approaching, and silence falls. The Ambassador appears, supported by the Herald, but both collapse weeping and exhausted. The Ambassador recovers, however, ordering the Herald to play the trumpet, and once more reads the stillunanswered announcement: the King invites the fairies to be the godmothers of his newborn baby girl. The sound of harps announced the response, and the seven Good Fairies appear from within the hawthorn bushes, dressed in star-embroidered clothes. The Blue Fairy tells the Ambassador that they accept the invitation of the King, and encourages her sisters to find the most splendid gifts in the enchanted realms.

Scene 2

The Great Hall of the royal palace

It is the day of the Princess’s baptism. The Court Jester sings a sneering lullaby to the baby, and the baptismal procession enters. The King and Queen are followed by the Good Fairies, and then a crowd of guests; all assemble at the cradle. The Blue Fairy tells of the gifts of beauty and joy which will be the child’s, and nymphs appear, celebrating the news with dances. Suddenly clouds of smoke appear, heralding the arrival of the Green Fairy, who is furious at not having been invited to the baptism. She waves her wand and, screeching, casts her spell. The Princess will indeed be beautiful and happy, but at the age of 20 she will prick her finger on a spindle and fall asleep forever. The King, appalled, calls for the Master of Spindles and orders him to destroy all the spindles in the kingdom. While the King and Queen lull the Princess, the spindles and spinning wheels are gathered by servants armed with whips.

Act II

Scene 1

A room in the turret of the castle

A forgotten, toothless Old Lady sits with her Cat, spinning wool. The Princess, now 20 years of age, is lost in the castle, and wanders in. She sees a Spindle, and asks the Cat to introduce her. When she asks to try spinning, the Old Lady agrees, in spite of the Cat’s reservations. But the Princess soon pricks her finger and falls asleep. The Old Lady runs off in search of help, and the Spindle begins a mocking dance, before being carried off by the Cat.

Scene 2

The Hall of the royal palace

The Doctors can find no remedy, and the King ejects them summarily from the Hall. He and the Queen are inconsolable. The procession of the Sleeping Beauty enters; she lies on a divan, pulled by two white marmots, and accompanied by Mourners. The Blue Fairy appears, triumphantly announcing a new spell to break the Green Fairy’s curse: she will one day be kissed by a prince who has fallen in love with her and wake up, together with the court, which now falls asleep too. The Blue Fairy disappears, leaving only darkness except for the light above the Princess, and spiders appear, spinning a vast web.


Scene 1

A woods near the enchanted castle

Three centuries have passed. Woodsmen are busy cutting wood. A hunting party appears, led by Prince April, together with the Duchess de la Bandolière and Mister Dollar Chèque. The Prince learns from the Woodsman of the magic spell cast on the inhabitants of the castle and of the sleeping Princess, who can only be woken by a kiss. He is enchanted by the story and feels that he must act; he leaves the Duchess and Dollar behind, passing through an opening which appears in the branches of the ivy. The disappointed Duchess leaves, on Dollar’s arm.

Scene 2

The Hall of the royal palace as in Act II

The Prince discovers everyone asleep and, attracted by the light, attempts to reach the Princess. His way is blocked by a gigantic spider, whom he fights and kills. The web falls to the floor. He kisses the Princess and she wakes. The Blue Fairy appears, announcing that the spell has been broken. The King and Queen, and the members of the court also awaken. The huntsmen appear and all dance in celebration of the nuptials: a minuet is followed by a foxtrot.

Ivan Moody

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