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Alfredo Catalani: La Wally

A review from Gramophone, February 1990

Catalani was by instinct and temperament a post-Verdian (even an anti-Verdian) composer whose short life ended just as the post-Verdian age began. It brought him not triumph but despair: Mascagni's Cavalleria Rusticana (first performed just as Catalani began work on La Wally, his last opera), Puccini's Manon Lescaut (whose success put La Wally into the shade and embittered the final months of Catalani's life), even Verdi's own Falstaf seemed more convincing models for the future than the one he had been labouring to perfect over 20 years and five previous operas.

A century later we don't have to be too hard on him for proposing a path that wasn't taken. He was abused for writing 'German operas' (four of his six stage works have romanticized Teutonic or Nordic settings) and he does have moments of atmospheric scoring that recall Weber but in La Wally, his maturest score, he is obviously and fundamentally an Italian who knew more about French opera than most of his compatriot contemporaries. He had, after all, spent perhaps as much as a year in Paris before going to the Milan Conservatoire, a year during which he could have heard most of Meyerbeer's grander operas, one of Massenet's, two by Ambroise Thomas and Weber's Der Freischutz.

Think of a blend of those influences (fairly well digested) plus long-lined Italian lyricism and a sort of hectic, driven vigour (is it too fanciful to attribute part of this to Catalani's by now galloping consumption?) and you will have a pretty good idea of the style of La Wally. Plenty of local colour, both in the obvious operatic sense (a huntsmen's chorus, a recurrent yodelling song—the work is set in the Austrian Alps) and, more impressively, in the evocations of cold in Act 4: piccolo and double-bass four octaves apart in the prelude, icily thin scoring in the opening scene on the snow-bound mountain peak, strangely Shostakovich-like chords in the soprano's despairing scena—Catalani's orchestral writing, though coarse now and then, has vitality and sometimes real poetry to it. Despite efforts not to be, La Wally is basically a number opera, and inevitably the big solo scenes stick most obstinately in the memory: the heroine's famous "Ebben? ne andro lontana", of course, but she has arias of similar melodic appeal in each of the other three acts (her baritone suitor and the tenor who first scornfully spurns her then learns to love her too late have their most characterful moments in duet with her); the melodic language is generous, with here and there a brusque, striking angularity. And in moments like the quite ingeniously complex ensemble in Act 2 (quartet and chorus) and above all in the sequence of not-quite-arias and notquite-declamatory-recitatives of the Fourth Act an individual voice begins to assert itself.

An immature voice, a crude and awkward one at times, and Catalani's characters are mere emblems with no depth or roundness to them. But the music of Wally herself can be filled out by a voice with Tebaldi's thrilling heft into a larger-than-life emblem of wild, proud independence, and when that happens you suddenly notice the skill with which the mood of her Act 1 aria is carried over into the following scene: she has cast her spell, and the act ends magically. Indeed in Tebaldi's performance, in Cappuccilli's as the decent but out-of-his-depth-in-waters-as-murky-as-these suitor (Wally has fallen for the tenor who ignored and then humiliated her) and in Cleva's lapel-seizing urgency Catalani's alternative route to postVerdian opera looks as though it might have been worth developing: what a pity he didn't live to do so. Stentorian belting from Del Monaco, decent support from the others and an excellent if rather bright recording with some endearing period sound effects.

MEO

  Tilaa

Wally: Renata Tebaldi
Giuseppe: Mario Del Monaco
Vincenzo: Piero Cappuccilli
Stromminger: Justino Diaz
Walter: Lydia Marimpietri
Afra: Stefania Malagu
Soldier: Alfredo Mariotti

Monte-Carlo National Opera Orchestra
Turin Lyric Chorus
Fausto Cleva

Decca 425 417-2

 

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