La Wally, Alfredo Catalani, Opera Holland Park, 31 July 2011
It began in 1888 with the thought of snow on a boiling summer’s day in Milan. Alfredo Catalani (1854-1893) was visiting his friend, Arrigo Boito, and the latter’s chance mention of snow led the composer to draw an extended comparison between snow and women that would become the imaginative germ of La Wally. The comparison led Boito in turn to recall a German romance he had recently read, Wilhelmine von Hillern’s Die Geier-Wally (The Vulture Wally). He recommended it, with considerable perspicuity, as a subject particularly suited to Catalani’s talents.
Also present on this occasion was Luigi Illica, then known as a playwright, who was persuaded to prepare Catalani a libretto. It was his first major effort in the field. He would go on to establish himself as the leading librettist for the post-Verdi Italian composers, most famous for his collaborations with Puccini (La Bohème, Tosca, Madama Butterfly). Illica appears to have had an imaginative affinity with Catalani that he sought in vain with other composers, however. Through their work on La Wally the two men became very close. Illica, with Toscanini, nursed Catalani in his final illness in 1893. They were working on a new opera at the time of Catalani’s tragically early death.
La Wally was a great success when premiered at La Scala on 20 January 1892 (not 1891 as the Holland Park programme claims). It ran for eighteen performances, and passed what might be considered the ultimate test for any Italian opera at the time: the aging Verdi came to see it and, according to Il Telegrafo, ‘declared his real enthusiasm’. With more support from Catalani’s powerful publisher, Giulio Ricordi, La Wally could have established itself immediately as a central work in the modern Italianrepertoire. Ricordi, however, who had never done much for the ailing Catalani, was soon committed to promoting Verdi’s Falstaff and Puccini’s Manon Lescaut, and La Wally was forgotten. But in 1904 Toscanini revived Catalani’s swansong in Buenos Aries with such acclaim that it was quickly taken up elsewhere, and for the next three decades it was a very popular opera. Since the 1930s La Wally has gone in and out of favour more than once. It has stubbornly held its place on the fringes of the repertoire partly because it contains one of the most beautiful arias ever written, Wally’s celebrated ‘Ebben? Ne andrò lontana’.
Despite its popularity elsewhere, though, La Wally has never fared well in the English-speaking world, even with such a prominent champion as Toscanini behind it. The prevailing judgement has tended to be that the story is silly, and that the admitted beauties of the music are inadequate compensation. The Alpine tale of how wild-child-of-nature, Wally, rejects the man who loves her (Gellner), then, in a fit of pique, encourages him to kill the man she loves (Hagenbach), before changing her mind and rescuing the latter, can be made to sound absurd when mockingly summarised, like the majority of opera plots. But opera critics are wonderfully inconsistent in their views on silliness: in some opera composers it is actually celebrated (in Handel, for example), and in others tolerated (in Tippett, say), while in others it is roundly condemned. With the majority of Anglophone critics Catalani has had the misfortune of being placed in the condemned group. This has not been the case elsewhere, however, especially in Italy and the German-speaking world where his operas have generally been most highly valued.
Holland Park’s first production of La Wally thus had the daunting challenge of giving a certain dramatic credibility to an opera not previously taken seriously in Britain. It was a challenge they embraced with gusto. The theory that seems to have determined the general approach is set out in Gavin Plumley’s lengthy programme essay, ‘Catalani: A Forgotten Radical’. Plumley argues that in his early operas Catalani was a thorough- going Wagnerian but that, faced with the explosive success of Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana in 1890 and the fact that ‘his more poetic, Bayreuth- inspired operas remained on the periphery of the repertoire’, Catalani was forced to rethink his style; he had to work out a sort of synthesis of German Romanticism with verismo. As an account of Catalani’s career this seems to me seriously flawed, as I explain below. Nonetheless, the dates sort of work if you simply register the fact that his opera premiered some twenty- one months after Cavalleria. It also goes some way toward justifying the sort of veristic approach to La Wally that Holland Park have taken.
That approach can be most readily grasped in Gweneth-Ann Jeffers’ delivery of ‘Ebben? Ne andrò lontana’, partly because the aria is so well- known and there are dozens of comparison versions. In this climactic moment, at the end of the first act, Wally has been expelled from home by her brutal father for refusing Gellner. She has decided to head up to the mountains to live in solitary communion with nature. Jeffers fills the aria with raw pain, the trauma of her exile clearly the dominant emotion. The gently anguished note of spiritual longing that others have found in the aria, and that has made it so popular, was almost wholly absent. But this new reading was in the spirit of Holland Park’s Act 1, the act most obviously suited to veristic treatment, which included a good deal of gratuitous violence. Wally has often been presented as a strange, rather otherworldly woman who awes those around her, even her father. Here she was, initially at least, a timid and abused waif – a passive victim of paternal sadism. The spectacle of her father grinding his heel into her head as he tells her his doors are no longer open to her seemed to epitomise the way her situation was being imagined.
Other aspects of the production followed this general line. Time and again the principals took a full-blooded rather than subtle approach. The lively chorus, excellently choreographed and dressed in costumes that would serve in many verismo operas, often came close to shouting. Peter Robinson conducted at a terrific pace, whipping up the climaxes, bringing out the power and excitement of the score, but sacrificing some of its poetry and atmosphere. The opera felt surprisingly short. The general directorial brief was clearly to give it everything, hoping to build up enough emotional momentum to suspend audience disbelief.
The interpretation was one at which Catalani himself would have balked. As one sympathetic Italian critic put it soon after the composer’s death, ‘Alfredo Catalani ignored spasmodic ravings, violent outbursts, and the heat and impetus of intoxicating passions. He adored purity and sweetness, elegant gracefulness, exquisite refinement, and sentimental melancholy’. This overstates the case, but it is a useful corrective to the Holland Park reading of La Wally. Nevertheless, the London audience’s response was so positive that it went a good way toward justifying the approach. If this is what it takes to get Anglo-American operagoers to seek out Catalani’s works and surmount the alleged silliness of his plots I am all for it. Establishing that Catalani had something to say is, for the moment at least, more important than establishing the tone of his voice, and an urgent, highly-charged performance may do him more favours than a more nuanced one.
In any case, La Wally was, to an extent, able to rise above some of the more limiting production philosophy. The superb fourth act, set high in the mountains with a storm setting off a series of avalanches and the lovers finally understanding each other amid the turbulence, is very much high Romantic in character. Fortunately it was produced in that spirit, with some dramatic and evocative staging. Jeffers, whose performance had sometimes seemed constrained in the earlier acts, now appeared liberated. She sang out gloriously, not a veristic heroine but the wild-child-of- nature coming to terms with human feelings that Catalani and Illica had imagined. Hagenbach, the man she loves, is not a very satisfactory role, for it is only here, at the very end, that he declares his feelings of love. Adrian Dwyer cut a slight and boyish figure; it was hard to imagine him wrestling with bears. All round he seemed too conventional, elegant and anonymous a personage to be the man of Wally’s dreams. (The plot, as I understand it, proposes that she sees in him something of herself.) Nevertheless, in this climactic scene he rose to the occasion, even if it was Jeffers’ Wally who, appropriately, dominated their love duet.
There was a strong supporting cast. Alinka Kozari was a compellingly chirpy, self-confident Walter – a trouser role. Some of the difficulties of the role were done away with, for Catalani and Illica apparently understood this character as a sort of bridge between wild Wally and the rest of the community. In this production the distance to be spanned did not seem very great. In general, and not surprisingly given the general thrust of the production, the most satisfactory performances coincided with the most veristic roles. Stephen Richardson was a superb Stromminger, Wally’s father. He gave a thoroughly convincing impression of a callous hard man reluctant to age and determined to let the world know that he is still a force to be reckoned with. Stephen Gadd was equally good as Gellner, a character who could step easily into Cavalleria Rusticana. Charles Johnston brought the minor role of the Old Soldier to life, and was a commanding stage presence, albeit a bit too theatrical.
But is La Wally really a verismo work, conceived as some sort of response to Cavalleria Rusticana? If not, how should it be played? The dates are strongly against Plumley’s thesis: Catalani was already well into the composition of La Wally when Mascagni’s opera became a sensation; there is no evidence that he significantly readjusted its artistic bearings at that juncture. Similarly, there is no suggestion in his surviving letters – or the memoirs of friends – that he saw Cavalleria as a work he wished to emulate. Quite the opposite, in fact: Catalani was inclined to see a good deal in Cavalleria as deriving from his own work, and he did not much like the more frankly populist and veristic elements.
It is similarly misleading to suggest that Catalani was suddenly intent on distancing himself from Wagner in his last opera. By far the best commentator on Catalani’s shifting relationship to Wagner is Giuseppe Depanis, Catalani’s close friend and a great Wagner enthusiast. He played a major role in popularising Wagner’s works in Italy. In summary, Depanis saw Catalani’s short creative career as roughly divided into three phases. The first, which produced La Falce (1875) and Elda (1880), was one of naïve and idealistic, though not simply imitative, Wagnerianism. The second, which produced Dejanice (1883) and Edmea (1886), saw a great distancing from Wagner and rapprochement with the Italian tradition as represented, in particular, in Verdi and Ponchielli. The third, which produced Loreley (1890) and La Wally, was a mature attempt to reshape Italian opera in the light of Wagner’s critical principles. Depanis’s view was that in this final phase Catalani ‘abandoned the ancient forms and attempted, and for the most part successfully, musical drama’. Catalani’s letters suggest that he would have agreed with this assessment.
Catalani regarded his particular forte as the fantastical, which placed him in a rather awkward relationship to the Verdian tradition. It attracted him to the radical Scapigliatura movement, in which Boito was a leading figure, with its love of German Romanticism and Wagner. ‘Give me a purely fantastic subject,’ Raffaello Barbiera, a Milanese critic, later recalled him saying, ‘something that would be poetry in itself.’ Catalani’s other major opera, Loreley, with its treatment of the famous Rhine legend, was the closest he came to such an ideal. It is a lovely opera, one I would highly recommend to Holland Park, though a veristic production would be akin to a parody. La Wally is less obviously a ‘fantastic subject’, but it contains strong elements of the fantastical and is equally rooted in Romantic notions of the natural world. The human world around Wally may be ordinary enough, but she is not of it. And there is a psychosexual aspect to this: Wally’s longing for a strange union with the landscape, and especially the snow, is clearly a wish somehow to avoid the usual developmental path to adult sexuality. The tragic paradox of the opera is that, just as she embraces adult sexuality, the mountains, which she seems all set finally to abandon, claim her lover.
La Wally is in no sense a story of real life, as Leoncavallo claimed of his closely contemporary Pagliacci (the sweeping success of which caused Catalani to ask, ‘Is it worth the trouble of doing serious art?’). But it is no more intrinsically silly than King Lear, although as with other operas adapted from novels there are gaps in the action that can be confusing. An ideal production needs to bring out the mythic, unworldly character of Wally – ‘suspended between earth and heaven’ in Boito’s words – and the note of impossible yearning that runs through Catalani’s work like the dying sigh of European Romanticism. Holland Park rather missed this. They made the opera smaller than it really is, though they must take a great deal of credit for making the opera appear more powerful and substantial than most Anglophone critics have painted it in the past. La Wally’s gutsy, dramatic side has been well vindicated; its more spiritual and poetic side awaits discovery.