Ottorino Respighi's noisy, lively orchestral tone poems, which make fastidious classical-music fans wince but always delight audiences, are so familiar that they've almost completely overshadowed his substantial career as an opera composer. The Gotham Chamber Opera and the puppeteer-director Basil Twist took a major step toward repairing that oversight with their production for the Lincoln Center Festival of Respighi's early children's opera, originally written for a marionette theater, based on the classic fairy tale that we call "Sleeping Beauty."
Though not produced till 1922, La Bella Dormente nel Bosco was written between 1907 and 1909, when Respighi (1879-1936) was just edging up to 30, and it's a young work not only addressed to child audiences (without condescension) but full of youthful games and high spirits—even though the surviving performance version is a revision Respighi made in 1934, two years before his death. Full of parody and quotation, the work uses twisty chromatic harmonies, seemingly just for the fun of it, to spice up its cascade of cheerful dance rhythms. When the modern prince goes hunting for the princess frozen in time 300 years earlier, his party even includes a free-spending American millionaire, complete with atrocious Italian accent and cakewalk exit music.
Twist and his designers poured out a cascade of playful devices to match Respighi's bouquet of tunes: tiny dancing roses that turned from pink to white and back again; frogs that hopped in giddy joy; spiders that scuttled in rhythm to a humming chorus; even a sassy dance of triumph for the spinning wheel whose spindle gave the Princess's finger the fatal prick. He puckishly mingled vocalists and puppets onstage (Respighi had intended the singers to stay in the pit), which didn't stop conductor Neal Goren from leading a lush-sounding, musically supple performance. The only thing wrong, in fact, was that the opera was given in Italian instead of English, with supertitles hidden away up where nobody would bother to look—since who could take their eyes off the delightful things happening onstage?