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Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Rethinking Catalani’s “La Wally”

In an earlier post on this site I made the offhand remark that the soprano aria, “Ebben? ne andrò lontano,” was the only worthwhile bit from an otherwise rightfully forgotten opera. This song is quite famous, performed often by sopranos in recital and a big hit from a foreign film (“Diva”) that enjoys a cult-like following, while also providing the movie’s major plot point.

Alfredo Catalani (1854–1893) came from Lucca, Italy, the birthplace of his contemporary and oft-claimed rival, Giacomo Puccini. But while Puccini—four years younger than Catalani—lived until 1924, Alfredo died at age 39. He was done in by consumption—an old term for tuberculosis. Catalani wrote five complete operas, the first of which was a student composition. His four mature works began with “Elda” in 1880, premiered at the Teatro Reggio in Turin. That was followed by “Dejanice” (1883) and “Edmea” (1886) at Milan’s La Scala, and then a revision of “Elda” in 1890 under the name “Loreley,” also for Turin. Incidentally, the Italian music company Bongiovanni has recorded all three of these pieces in their entirety.

In the world of Italian music, Catalani was far from a lightweight. Gustav Mahler personally selected “Dejanice” as the work he wanted to conduct in Leipzig, and Arturo Toscanini marked his debut at age 19 by conducting the first performance of “Edmea” in Turin. The latter became an Alfredo-backer for life, even naming two of his children for characters in the composer’s final creation.

Strong artistic personalities oftentimes create lasting enemies, and Catalani's reputation suffered for that. He was an outspoken critic of the “verismo” style of opera, directly in conflict with the growing popularity of works by Mascagni, Leoncavallo, and especially Puccini. But he also ticked off Verdi, publicly describing his music as, “stir[ring the public] with screams and stagy effects that are completely lacking in common sense.” Since Verdi and his publisher—Ricordi—effectively controlled late 19th century Italian opera, that probably wasn’t an optimal career move. There are reports that Verdi actually started the squabble, back when Catalani’s student opera, “La Falce,” was performed no fewer than three times at the Milan Conservatory (such compositions were rarely staged more than once) in 1875, decrying Catalani’s style as “blithely Wagnerian.” Back in those days, them was fightin’ words!

The composer also enjoyed the collaboration of several famous librettists. The book for “Edmea” was written by Antonio Ghilanzoni, creator of forty-plus opera librettos including “Aida.” He also wrote lyrics for several operas by Ponchielli (although NOT his most famous, “La Gioconda”) and Gomes, the latter a Brazilian composer who was heralded early and often by Verdi.

“La Wally” premiered at Milan’s La Scala on January 20, 1892. The libretto was one of the earliest by Luigi Illica, best known for collaborating with Puccini on “Manon Lescaut,” “La Boheme,” “Tosca” and “Madama Butterfly,” not to mention librettos for Mascagni, Alberto Franchetti (“Cristoforo Columbo”) and Giordano (“Siberia,” “Andrea Chenier”).

The opera is in four acts, based on a German novel titled “Die Geyer-Wally” [The Vulture-Wally] by someone named Wilhelmine von Hillern. Considering Illica's adaptation, I’m not sure where the “vulture” part comes into play; it may have been one of those instances where the concept got left on the cutting-room floor.

Set in the Tyrol, it’s your basic operatic premise of girl-loves-boy, girl’s-father-betroths-her-elsewhere, true-love-triumphs-briefly, and then lovers-die-tragically. Given the geographic setting, the fact that Wally (the soprano heroine) and Hagenbach (her tenor lover) perish together in an avalanche seems rather fitting. There are also roles for Wally’s father (bass), the father’s preferred suitor (baritone), the heroine’s rival (mezzo), and a young zither player (soprano) who imparts important information to move the plot forward. There are also myriad townsfolk, shepherds and other hangers-on who populate the scenery.

In February 1989, a “New York Times” article by John Rockwell reviewed a performance of “La Wally” at Sarasota (Fla.) Opera. He wrote, “[while] Catalani’s operas crop up occasionally in Italy…his best known score had apparently not received a full staging in this country since 1909 at the Metropolitan Opera.” In April 1990, Eve Queler led an Opera Orchestra of New York concert performance at Carnegie Hall in New York City. Aprile Millo sang the title role in that production. A quick scan of the OperaBase Web site, which posts past and future performances for nearly every major opera house worldwide, shows several performances in Dusseldorf (Germany) at the tail-end of 2005, but nothing else.

The opera is fairly scarce on CD. The only version available on a major recording label is from London/Decca, with Renata Tebaldi in the title role. The other singers include Justino Diaz, Mario Del Monaco and Piero Cappuccilli, and the conductor is Fausto Cleva. Turning to Amazon.com for further details, five reviewers each gave this recording top marks (five stars), including one from Larry Cantrell of Vancouver, B.C., who wrote:
“This is not a familiar work for most opera lovers. That
is a shame because it is a hoot! Where else is there a yodeling
aria? In what other opera does the tenor despise the soprano until almost
the [very] end? And, I ask you, where can you find a tenor so dumb that he
falls off a cliff TWICE before the curtain falls?”

Tebaldi also figures on a live Opera’d’Oro recording from Rome in October 1960, but her cast-mates—Silvio Majonica, Jolando Gardino and Giacinto Prandelli—could just as easily be the starting midfielders for Italy’s World Cup team, for all we might have heard of them. La Renata owned the role of Wally throughout her career, which is why it was such a challenge for me to find a complete recording of the opera on CD by some other soprano. You see, I’m not especially crazy about Tebaldi’s voice—especially late in her career, which is when this Decca recording was made.

Luckily for me I stumbled upon a Eurodisc box set from 1991 on eBay, with Hungarian soprano Eva Marton as Wally. The rest of the singers include Francesco d’Artegna (bass), Alan Titus (baritone), Francisco Araiza (tenor) and Birgit Calm (mezzo). Other than Marton, the conductor boasts the most recognizable name in the bunch—Pinchas Steinberg.

In his “NYT” review Rockwell commented that Catalani’s “lack of visceral musical drama…complex orchestral parts and lack of big, fat tunes,” plus his “quaintly pastoral” libretto, were all factors that contributed to the opera’s demise among audiences more attuned to the excitement of verismo. But having listened to it last weekend in its entirety—two-plus hours played straight through—I have to agree with his further assessment that “La Wally” seems worthy of a major revival.

A short time ago one of my fellow bloggers, Maury D’Annato noted that it’s difficult to judge the worth of a rarely performed opera, since only one complete recording of it may exist, oftentimes performed by less-than-stellar casts and obscure orchestras—the National Ensemble of Moldova, for example.

But I found the Eurodisc recording quite pleasing, with clear-sounding instruments (Munich Radio Orchestra) and well-cast soloists. The orchestral music sounded modernistic for something written in the late 1800s—almost movie-like in a Korngold sort of way. Alan Titus sounded so much like Robert Merrill that I practically had to check the liner notes a second time. Further research has turned up a Web site on the Julliard-trained baritone, with a fairly decent number of roles under his apparently ample belt and a fair discography.

What Catalani did with the chorus was especially enjoyable. They blend well with the orchestra and ably suit the pastoral setting in which the opera takes place. Despite a pretty lame story line, the music does a good job of moving the plot ahead. The only annoying part was the composer’s use of the “musical laugh” in an inordinate number of locations—plus a few piercing screams, but I suppose one has to expect that when people are falling off cliffs or being buried in avalanches.

I’ll probably listen to “La Wally” again in the not-too-distant future and, as I have often found, operas I like seem to get better the more I hear them. A search for this work on DVD has turned up a “private” recording available on the House of Opera Web site with Mara Zampieri as Wally, recorded at the Bregenz Festival in 1990 and conducted by our old friend, Maestro Steinberg. Maybe I’ll take a chance on it, since it’s not available on a commercial disk, not likely to be anytime soon, and it’s on sale there for $9.98.

I extend thanks to the Opera Italiana Web site for biographical data on Alfredo Catalani and a synopsis of the plot of “La Wally.” It’s a valuable source of information on many Italian composers of opera. And for a small membership fee it offers audio clips for quite a few arias.

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