About this Recording
8.223742 - RESPIGHI: Bella dormente nel bosco (La)

Ottorino Respighi (1879–1936)
La bella dormente nel bosco (Sleeping Beauty) • Musical fairy-tale in three acts (1921–1933)


The 1689 fairy-tale of Charles Perrault, La belle au bois dormant (“Sleeping Beauty”), inspired Tchaikovsky to his famous ballet exactly two hundred years later and in 1901 provided the subject of an opera for Engelbert Humperdinck. Both these works were conceived for adult performers. Respighi’s opera on the same subject calls for an ensemble of puppets and is addressed to young audiences. It became so successful in his own lifetime that, with his ballet La boutique fantasque, it heads the group of his most frequently performed stage works.

In the 1920s Vittorio Podrecca’s puppet company I Piccoli was very famous, and not only in Italy. After attending a performance in London an enthusiastic George Bernard Shaw seemed to prefer Podrecca’s wooden actors to real ones and Respighi too expressed the opinion that it was a joy to work with actors one could pack away into a box after rehearsal, so that they could not bother one with complaints and gossip, as their flesh and blood colleagues do.

On 13th April, 1922, La bella addormentata nel bosco was given its first performance at the Teatro Odescalchi in Rome. The conductor was Respighi’s pupil Renzo Massarani and the production, which held the stage in Podrecca’s company for over twenty years, toured to Turkey, Greece, Egypt, Bulgaria, Russia, Canada, Australia and Japan. For London performances the soprano Cissie Vaughan, a pupil of Adelina Patti and Ruggero Leoncavallo, was engaged. She presumably sang the parts of the Nightingale I Blue Fairy, the actual principal role of the opera, rather than that of the Princess.

In November 1933 Respighi completed a new version of his children’s opera, now called La bella dormente nel bosco, at the request of the Teatro di Torino, and conducted the first performance on 9th April, 1934. This was acted in mime by some hundred children, while singing and speaking parts were heard from the orchestra pit, as they had been in the earlier performances in Rome. Since the manuscript of the first version has been lost, there is no chance of comparing it with its revision, but it is known that for the original orchestration Respighi had commissioned his pupil Vincenzo di Donato. The 1933 manuscript score used for this recording can, therefore, be considered the composer’s authentic version, as revised and orchestrated by himself for a larger symphonic ensemble rather than for the reduced forces of Podrecca’s theatre.

Respighi conducted his fairy-tale opera in an RAI Torino broadcast of 13th April, 1934. Further productions followed from the same station in 1937, under the direction of Armando La Rosa Parodi, and in 1939, under Alfredo Simonetta. Again for RAI Torino, Elsa Respighi prepared a version of La bella dormente nel bosco for a concert broadcast of 13th June, 1967, under the direction of Arturo Basile. This version contained a number of unpardonable cuts and a newly composed and rather questionable rock’n roll finale by Gian Luca Tocchi. This performance has been preserved on a pirate LP by Anna Records. In other words, La bella dormente nel bosco has never been seen on the operatic stage, although such a staging would be valuable, with music and singing parts that are of considerable interest. There may be reservations about the libretto of Gian Bistolfi, but appropriate staging can easily overcome any such difficulties. In today’s repertoire there are many operas, serious and comic, that have libretti far worse than Bistolfi’s.

The music of La bella dormente nel bosco, which Respighi described as an innocent mockery of contemporary melodrama, is quite a revelation, containing a synthesis of the composer’s stylistic versatility while revealing his musical sense of humour, which ranges from the most forthright to the most refined parody. The composer clearly had it in mind to pay homage to musicians then in fashion, to Wagner, Massenet and Debussy (not only with Mr Dollar’s Cakewalk), Puccini and Stravinsky. It is obvious that such subtleties cannot reach every audience, especially the younger, but unprepared, listeners may find pleasure, nevertheless, in the opera’s appealing and generally romantic fairy-tale score. Contemporary critics discovered, welcomed and even overrated the composer’s few marks of homage to Wagner in the Prince’s journey to the castle (Siegfried’s Rheinfahrt), in the Green Fairy’s melodrama (Freia’s motif rather than Erda’s) and in the waking scene of the Princess (Brünnhilde’s), not to mention the suggestion of Die Meistersinger in the doctor’s scene. In addition to other marks of homage, particularly those to Puccini (as clearly in the final love-duet), since Respighi never talked in detail about his work, we can presume that there may also be quotations and references, the result rather of intuition than intention from an eclectic mind. What is important in this apparently lightweight piece is that its goal has been fully reached in a score that displays incredible spontaneity, sensibility, melody and thoroughly virtuosic instrumentation.

To write La bella dormente nel bosco Respighi had interrupted his work on his comic opera Belfagor. It is suggested that the perceptive listener might well discover in this less pretentious work some premonitions of Belfagor and others, like the Frog’s scene at the beginning, that already take us to the forest of La campana sommersa.

La bella dormente nel bosco can be heard in the present recording in its complete form, except in the case of the finale, from which a minuet of 37 bars has been omitted. The present writer found it appropriate to take seriously the courtiers’ chorus invitation to celebrate spring-time as in nouveau style by moving forward directly to the concluding Fox-trot, thus finally ignoring the seventeenth century music. A short-score fragment of a Tango, preceding the Fox-trot, has been found and the present writer would have been delighted to orchestrate it, had it been complete. As far as the inclusion of occasional chorus applause and cheering, cats’ miaow-ing, gong-striking and a few changes in some of the spoken dialogue is concerned, the present recording called for even more of such extra theatrical effects.

The opera requires a modest orchestra of seven wind instruments, strings and percussion, with additional piano, celesta and spinet (or harpsichord). Like Richard Strauss in Ariadne auf Naxos, where four wind instruments are doubled, Respighi achieves incredible things with a small ensemble. The fifteen singing and two speaking parts were originally taken by no more than ten performers, as on this recording. This does not mean that the casting of the Blue Fairy I Nightingale should be underestimated: the role is a challenging one, for a coloratura soprano. The two lyric parts of the Princess and the Prince also make their demands, particularly in the final duet.


Act I
1–4, Scene I
The scene is set in the countryside, with flowers blooming, by the side of a small lake. It is a starlit night. The year is 1620. The song of the Nightingale competes with that of the Cuckoo, finally to be disturbed by a group of dancing Frogs. The Royal Ambassador and a Herald arrive to announce the birth of the Princess and to invite all Fairies to the imminent christening. The Blue Fairy and her companions appear, telling the astounded Ambassador that they will agree to be the godmothers of the Princess. Singing in chorus, the Fairies fly away and only the two lonely birds are heard again.

5–8, Scene 2
The scene is now the Great Hall of the castle. The Court Jester improvises a comic lullaby by the golden cradle of the baby Princess. The King and Queen appear, accompanied by the Fairies and the royal guests. The Blue Fairy pays homage to the Princess and is echoed by her companions. A group of Rose Nymphs dances a languorous waltz. The ceremony, reaching a climax in a solemn march, with the ringing of bells, is interrupted by the arrival of the angry Green Fairy, who with fire and smoke makes all the guests disappear. To the trembling royal couple she offers her own christening present, announcing that at the age of twenty the Princess will prick her finger on a spindle and fall asleep for ever. When she has disappeared, the King calls the Master of Spindles, ordering him to destroy at once all the spinning-wheels in the kingdom. The Blue Fairy does not countermand this spell at once, but calls an ethereal chorus of singing stars to ensure that a watchful eye will now be kept on the Princess.

Act II

9–12, Scene I
Twenty years have passed. In a forgotten turret of the castle a toothless old crone sits over a forgotten spinning-wheel, singing a melancholy song of loneliness. The woman leaves the room in search of some wool and the Princess comes in, singing of the joys of spring. She greets the suspicious Cat, who introduces her to the Spindle and the three dance together. The old woman returns and, urged by the Princess, teaches her how to spin, using a spindle that she had kept apart. The Cat does notice this, but it is already too late: the Princess has pricked her finger and falls slowly asleep. The old woman rushes out to call for help, while the Spindle starts to whirl around the Green Fairy’s victim in triumph.

13–15, Scene 2
In the royal apartments once more four Doctors, armed with huge syringes, tell the King that the illness of the Princess is unknown. After these incompetent physicians have been dismissed the Queen joins her husband in a mournful duet. A funeral procession enters. The Princess, carried in a sedan chair by two white marmots, seems only asleep. Professional mourners are engaged, realising that no kind of sweet foods, nor those soft melodies of the morbid Strauss, have been of use in rousing the Princess. Finally the Blue Fairy appears. She orders the Princess to be put in an alcove and casts her own spell of sleep over everyone. She predicts that the Princess will one day wake through a kiss of love and leaves, as her task is concluded by a legion of humming Spiders that cover the scene with their silvery webs.

Act Ill

16–18, Scene I
The action takes place some three hundred years later, around 1940. The scene is a place in the woods from which the enchanted castle can be seen. A Woodcutter sings, joined in chorus by his fellows. Prince April appears, accompanied by the Duchess and by a group of huntsmen. In the party are also members of the “Paper-Hunt”, a rich American society presided over by Mr. Dollar Cheques. After a brief attempt at flirtation with the Duchess, the Prince is intrigued by the mysterious castle, all covered with ivy. The Woodcutter tells him the legend of the Sleeping Princess lying therein, still waiting for the kiss of April that will break the spell. The whole company is urged to return home at once and the Duchess, already jealous, is consoled by Mr. Dollar to the point that he offers to buy the Sleeping Beauty, whatever she costs. After his arietta the Prince leaves his horse and, full of desire, approaches the castle.

19, Scene 2
In the hall in which the Princess lies, Prince April ironically greets the motionless courtiers he meets, learning from distant echoing voices that it will be love, inspired by the spring, that will help him break the magic spell.

20–22, Scene 3
A great Spider tries to lure him into her web, but the Prince destroys her with his riding-whip. Suddenly the alcove is brightly lit. The Sleeping Beauty lies there on her bed and the Prince’s kiss awakes her and the others under the spell. After a passionate love duet, the Blue Fairy makes a final, triumphant appearance, transforming the old chamber into a splendid throne-room. The royal couple and the guests rejoice. The “Paper-Hunt” group, that has just entered, manages to bring all the seventeenth century people into a dance with them, a nouveau style Fox-Trot.

Edited by Keith Anderson

Close the window