Catalani’s La Wally is
an opera best known for just one aria – the strange and hauntingly beautiful “Ebben! Ne andrò lontana,” - but it’s far from
being a one-hit wonder. It’s full of
great tunes and fine vocal opportunities, while dramatically leaving
something to be desired. The finale is
an alpine avalanche, which is never going to be easy to carry off, no matter
how stylized the staging.
Alfredo Catalani was a near
contemporary of Puccini’s. Only four
years separate them and they even came from the same town, so rivalry was
inevitable. It was Catalani’s premature
death at the age of 39 that prevented an all out battle between the composers,
with his operatic triumph preceding Manon Lescaut by only a
year. Puccini had hardly got started by
Catalani’s librettist was none
other than Luigi Illica who was soon to change his allegiance to Puccini and go
on to collaborate on La bohème, Tosca and
It’s perhaps fair to say that as early as 1892, with La
Wally, he was still learning his craft.
Gweneth Ann-Jeffers returns to
Holland Park to play the tomboyish heroine, following the acclaim of her
Leonora in La forza del Destino here last season. Many people who are familiar with the score will
no doubt know it from the Decca recording with the late, great Renata Tebaldi
and vocally Jeffers almost gives her a run for her money (praise doesn't come
any higher than that). Physically, she’s
a little more awkward, especially in her male garb in the first act
which oddly echoes that of the trouser role Walter (Alinka Kozari).
But then there’s something a bit
gawky about the whole production. I
don't think I’ve ever been so aware before of how wide the stage is at Holland
Park and how much hoofing the singers have to do to cover the distance.
A system of canvas and ropes on
pulleys serves to represent the mountainous setting and in the prelude to Act 3
we’re given a positive alpine ballet, as acres of smudged white rise and fall. Director
Martin Lloyd-Evans updates the action to the 30s or 40s (though not a Nazi uniform in sight, I hasten to add) and, with designer
Jamie Vartan, evokes an effective bier keller in the second act, using the
front of the house itself.
The deployment of a wispy guiding spirit, who comes into her own at the
finale, is less successful.
Tenor Adrian Dwyer is pleasant
as the caddish Hagenbach and, in another ambiguously sympathetic role,
Stephen Gadd is outstandingly good as Gellner, the hapless love rival. Stephen Richardson’s Stromminger is
particularly vicious, lashing out at his daughter at every provocation.
There’s a spirited performance of
the score from the City of London Sinfonia under Peter Robinson and, once
again, Opera Holland Park has gone where other opera companies don't dare. Amazingly this marvelous work, with all its
flaws, has never been fully staged in the UK before and this is another
valuable addition to the company’s adventurous repertoire.