An excellent question for the next Metropolitan Opera Quiz would be “how many other composers can be identified in Ottorino Respighi’s score of La bella dormente nel bosco”? The answer would surely baffle most opera experts as performances of his version of The Sleeping Beauty are about as rare as an undemanding diva. Even in Respighi’s home town of Bologna, his operatic music is virtually unknown. Rome is similarly neglectful of this outstanding orchestrator, which seems a tad ungrateful considering the subjects of his two most performed works depict the Eternal City’s famous fountains and pines.

Nikoleta Kapetanidou (The princess) and Grégoire Mour (The Prince) © Blandine Soulage
Nikoleta Kapetanidou (The princess) and Grégoire Mour (The Prince)
© Blandine Soulage

The original 1922 manuscript has been lost, but the revised edition of La bella for Torino in 1933 reveals unmistakable references to a pantheon of composers such as Bizet, Massenet, Debussy, Offenbach, Stravinsky, Giordano, Puccini and Wagner. There is even a rollicking fox-trot/cake-walk finale in a not so subtle parody of Debussy’s famous “Golliwog”. The lower string ascending scale passage before the Ambassador’s entrance is a direct reference to both Downfall and Erda motifs in Der Ring des Nibelungen. In the spinning wheel scene, the Blue Fairy appropriates the “Mêlons! Coupons!” music from Carmen as “Summ und brumm” was probably too predictable. The final duet between the prince and princess is a happy hybrid of “O sink' hernieder” from Tristan und Isolde and “Vicino a te s'acquesta” which ends Andrea Chénier.

Respighi’s plot takes Charles Perrault’s first part of the traditional Sleeping Beauty fairy tale, sparing the audience the gruesome enfants au four of the sequel. Unlike Tchaikovsky or Humperdinck’s longer adaptations, Respighi’s 1922 version runs for eighty minutes and was written for Vittorio Podrecca’s immensely popular marionette theatre in Rome. On hearing a performance in London, George Bernard Shaw quipped that he much preferred puppets to real singers. As the home of Guignol, Lyon is a logical place to stage this puppet opera, notwithstanding the co-production with Montpellier. 

<i>La bella dormente nel bosco</i> © Blandine Soulage
La bella dormente nel bosco
© Blandine Soulage

In her programme notes, director Barbora Horáková speaks of being inspired by the natural beauty of Bali, but there isn’t much evidence of Barong mysticism in the boisterous, busy mise-en-scène. It’s actually more like a chaotic Kuta Beach with everything from line-dancing to a kitsch Denpasar Disney World with Mickey and Minnie prancing around. Mister Dollar is munching popcorn for most of the last scene. Sets and costumes were far less grand than Valentina Carrasco’s recent production in Strasbourg, but in many ways more charming. In fairness, La bella is all about fantasy and imagination and, in this regard, Horáková’s staging was a success.

Conductor Philippe Forget led the small instrumental ensemble and a stage overrun with fairies, birds, cats, cockerels, clowns, kiddies, lumberjacks, princesses, princes and paupers. The original orchestration for eighteen musicians is wonderfully light and translucent but still manages to pull a Puccini punch when necessary. There were lots of impressive flute flutterings from Catherine Puertolas, and Pascal Savignon blasted several trumpet fanfares which could have been Siegfried’s hero motif by Wynton Marsalis. A maudlin Mendelssohnian violin solo was sensitively played by Kazimierz Olechowski. After the atmospheric subdued Sibelius-esque solo horn opening, there was also a tinkling celesta, chuckling bassoon and raspy glissando-sliding trombone adding to the fun. Forget paid commendable attention to the frequent rhythmic and dynamic changes in this intriguing, multi-stylistic score. 

<i>La bella dormente nel bosco</i> © Blandine Soulage
La bella dormente nel bosco
© Blandine Soulage

Despite sometimes feeling more like a Broadway musical with intimations of Beauty and the Beast, the level of ensemble singing was surprisingly high. Ana Victória Pitts was a haughty duchess with an eye for Mister Dollar’s (Angelo Rinna) money and Beth Taylor not only a commanding queen with hefty chest-notes but a chirpy cuckoo and silkily sung cat as well. The sleepy heroine was sung with minimum vibrato and maximum charm by Nikoleta Kapetanidou. Grégoire Mour was her mandatorily handsome prince and even if slightly small voiced, rose to the verismo requirements of the final duet with some impressive top Bs and a bright, forward-placed technique. Displaying strong projection and a timbre reminiscent of Alain Vanzo, Jan Żądło was particularly effective as the King plus ambassador and lumberjack. The role of the Blue Fairy (and Nightingale) with its arduous fioritura and extremely high tessitura is a first cousin to Offenbach’s Olympia or Delibes’ Lakmé and was impressively sung by Henrike Henoch, enthusiastically waving a long blue ribbon for most of the action.

The very mixed-age audience were delighted with the performance and, unlike Shaw, clearly preferred singers to puppets. The real revelation however was Respighi’s extraordinarily clever and accomplished orchestration which was immaculately played by musicians from l’Orchestre de l’Opéra de Lyon. Considering Lyon was recently judged “the best opera house in the world” by Opernwelt, this was in all respects a very happy ending.  

PS. The answer to the opening question is more than ten.

***11