La Wally has huge potential. It’s an Italianate Der Freisch¸tz, imbued with the wild, free spirit of the Romantic Movement, though Catalani was a contemporary of Puccini. Perhaps they shared a common fascination with exotic locales and extreme emotion.
La Wally is gloriously theatrical. The heroine, Wally, is extraordinary. She’s an elemental, part woman, part nature spirit, who lives alone in the wilderness — surviving, one imagines, on sheer force of will. Compared to Wally, Carmen is a wimp. This story isn’t set in the high Alps for nothing. The mountains loom upwards towards the stratosphere. Extraordinary heroine, extraordinary setting: mountain peaks, frozen glaciers, crevasses, snowstorms and an avalanche.
Catalani’s music isn’t sophisticated, but it’s gorgeously atmospheric. Peter Robinson conducted the City of London Sinfonia with brio. Horns on one side, trombones and trumpet on the other, “calling” to one another as villagers in the Alps might do — church bells, the sound of distant hunting horns, long booming alpenhorns (created by the trombones), the sound of cowbells, bright sunny flute motifs, not-quite-L‰ndler dances, just bucolic enough to be humorous. This music is so colourful that you can visualize the imagery.
Then the atmosphere changes, like the weather in the Alps. Wally has been away for a year in the wilderness. The villagers are carousing in the square by the tavern. Wally is humiliated and overreacts. From then on Wally’s fate is sealed. The Andante that begins Act III marks a turning point. It’s moody, as if the weather is closing in. Catalani’s writing is so vivid that it becomes the drama. Wally’s heroic rescue mission is described in hard-driven figures. The avalanche music in Act IV could come straight out of Hollywood.
La Wally is a fascinating opera, so full of possibilities that it should be heard in full more frequently. So I was frustrated that more wasn’t made of it. Certainly, the opportunities were there. Gweneth-Ann Jeffers, who was a sensational Leonora in the 2010 OHP production of Verdi’s La forza del destino, was a brilliant choice for Wally. This isn’t any easy role to cast, particularly since the stars who’ve made the famous arias so popular are hard to equal. Wally is a complex personality, full of extremes and contradictions. The score gives clues to her background, but the part is so remarkable that there’s so much that could be done to flesh out the part. Jeffers has a voice with good range and emotional depth.
Her ‘Ebben? Ne andrÚ lontana’ was poignant, because Jeffers understands what leaving the village means to Wally. Wally takes risks, like her emblem the edelweiss, she clings to steep slopes and survives harsh conditions. Forceful as Wally is, Jeffers shows her finest colours in the Third and Fourth Act arias. Her dialogue with Walter (Alinka Kozari) is spirited, and her ‘Eterne a me d’intorno’ was a study in heartfelt dignity.
Stephen Richardson as Stromminger and Stephen Gadd as Gellner
Jeffers can act as well as sing, as her performance in La forza demonstrated. In this production, her resources were sadly underutilized. Director Martin Lloyd-Evans keeps Jeffers busy doing things like change her clothes. In the score she removes her bodice, but on this stage she’s stripped down to her underwear, somewhat gratuitously. She’s directed to move in an inhibited way, as if she’s domesticated. The pearls aren’t merely decorative but as symbolic as a chain. Perhaps Wally is a victim of abuse, for Stromminger (Stephen Richardson) keeps beating her up, but she’s far too strong a personality to be cowed. Jeffers really should be groomed for greater things. She’s an asset British opera should nurture properly
This production had a generally strong cast. Adrian Dwyer and Stephen Gadd sing Hagenbach and Gellner better than they are called on to act. Stephen Richardson’s Stromminger is weighty — a pity the character dies after Act 1. Alinka Kozari’s Walter is bright and sharply characterized. Her extended Act I monologue was a joy. Charles Johnston was Il Pedone and Heather Shipp a sparky Afra.
La Wally isn’t an easy opera to stage, but Catalani’s score is so inherently dramatic that it suggests imaginative solutions. The mountains and the wild extremes of nature reflect the excesses in Wally’s personality. They function like a chorus, “speaking” through the music, sometimes sunny, but gradually more turbulent. and menacing, culminating in the avalanche. Mountains are dangerous, as Catalani keeps reminding us in the score. There’s almost no way anyone could stage La Wally realistically, for a narrative like this demands suspension of disbelief. Landscape settings on this grand scale would have been technically impossible in Catalani’s time. Realism in opera isn’t “tradition” but aberration. This opera is surreal nature fantasy, but that doesn’t mean banal.
Designer Jamie Vartan sidesteps the issue altogether, using a painter’s dropcloth, suspended by guy ropes that remain clearly visible throughout and threaten to trip the singers at several points. Only in the very end does the dropcloth make sense, when it’s manipulated to look much more like mountains, but by then the opera’s nearly over. The problem of how to stage the avalanche is solved but until that point, we’re often left staring at the carved portico that remains of Holland Park House which completely undercuts the idea of open horizons and wilderness. Since the opera itself comprises two distinct parts it might have been more effective to realise the difference with different settings, Perhaps filmed projections might work well in other houses, but Holland Park is almost open-air. Given the nature of the two acts, even a good old fashioned painted backdrop of mountains might work. It could be witty and let the singers and orchestra do their thing.
The staging is so awkward that if you didn’t know the plot you’d be lost. Gellner chases Hagenbach up the peaks and pushes him into a crevasse in the glacier. Catalani’s music describes the urgency and struggle with whirling figures like wind, trudging staccato, tearing, screaming figures from the string section, alarums from the brass. But what we get on stage is a trestle table about three feet high, covered with cloth. Gadd scuffles with Dwyer who rolls onto the other side of the table. The avalanche roars through the orchestra. We see an acrobat hanging from a rope on stage but the music has already told us that Wally and Hagenbach have been so overwhelmingly engulfed that no trace of them remains.
La Wally is definitely worth going to as it could be a while before another production comes along. Don’t worry too much about the staging, but focus on the excellent singing and the lively orchestra. This opera has great potential, so it’s worth thinking about in depth.
image_description=Gweneth-Ann Jeffers as Wally and Stephen Richardson as Stromminger [Photo by Fritz Curzon courtesy of Opera Holland Park]
product_title=Alfredo Catalani: La Wally
product_by=Wally: Gweneth-Ann Jeffers; Stromminger: Stephen Richardson; Afra: Heather Shipp; Walter: Alinka Kozari; Hagenbach: Adrian Dwyer; Gellner: Stephen Gadd; Il Pedone: Charles Johnston. Conductor: Peter Robinson. City of London Sinfonia. Director: Martin Lloyd-Evans. Designer: Jamie Vartan. Holland Park Opera. 29th July to 12th August 2011.
product_id=Above: Gweneth-Ann Jeffers as Wally and Stephen Richardson as Stromminger
Photos by Fritz Curzon courtesy of Opera Holland Park