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 then.
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 Madama Butterfly. 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.
- Simon Thomas