Alfredo Catalani-Loreley (1890)
Opera in Three Acts (revision of earlier opera “Elda” in Four Acts by the composer)
SYNOPSIS: The Rhineland around 1500. A Rhenish nobleman deserts a poor orphan girl for the niece of a powerful landowner (ACT1) only to have both girls die (ACT2) when the former comes back as a supernatural being bent on a watery revenge (ACT3).
CREDITS: (Thanks to ahperfido for uploading this historic recording to dailymotion)
Image above from youtube, below from
Piano/Vocal Score (from IMSLP archive, may require a 15 second wait to clik on download link):
Live broadcast: Milano, Teatro alla Scala
February 13, 1968
Loreley : Elena Souliotis
Walter : Gianfranco Cecchele
Herrmann : Piero Cappuccilli
Anna di Rehberg : Rita Talarico
Rudolfo : Agostino Ferrin
Orchestra e Coro del Teatro alla Scala
Conductor : Gianandrea Gavazzeni
ACT 1 (48:30)
0: Overture *. This is possibly the last Italian opera that begins with something resembling an overture and it is beauteous. Starts with a couple of brass bangs. Woodwinds, low strings. High brass, then settles around 90 seconds in. Brooding, (I will call it “D” for doom theme from now on) the music sounds like it was from another era in parts. Tragedy, climax, then brooding again but rather well done, melodic. There is a theme that reminds me of the end of the second act of Tosca in the lower strings. Then Bang! All over the place and then rising supernatural theme or “S”. Stop, repeat (and it will return again). The next two minutes builds quietly to what I will call the Loreley or “L” motif, a sweet and passionate watery theme, and rather innovative for the time period in its fluctuation from F flats to naturals, ends with a bit of a triumphal motif.
6:30 Immediately we are drawn into…another prelude? No just a bit of L motif, then everything comes to life with a series of tuneful workers choruses *. These sound out of place for the 1880s or 1890s, is this Verdi? They are enjoying themselves. Eventually, Herman (baritone) a courtier, arrives and orders everyone back to work.
11:30 Alone, he pines for Anna (soprano), the niece of the Duke Rudolfo (bass), but she is engaged to Walter. This is something between recitative and arioso *, in fact, the next twenty minutes are mostly balanced between recitative and arioso, which although continuously melodic, is mostly low temperature, but it does forward the plot.
15: Walter arrives, and fills Herman in on his dilemma in a long arioso passage with interjections from Herman *. He is a tenor in love with two women (both sopranos, how ironic?). Herman tricks Walter into thinking he will help him.
18: Herman’s brief duet with Walter *. This is followed by about two minutes of well orchestrated recitative but the entire number can be seen as encapsulating the blending of the Verdian vocal tradition with Wagnerian orchestration that Catalani was attempting.
21: Loreley sings her happy love song in the distance *. Herman hides. She arrives, and confronts Walter in more recitative.
27:45-29:30: She goes into aria mode. A minute in there is a bit of D before Loreley declares that she is abandoned. The rest of her aria is remarkably late Bel Canto. Watch out especially for one patch of arioso between interjections coming from Walter and then their duetting on the same theme * about 90 seconds later. Hunting horns, Walter declares that their relationship must end and to have mercy over a good orchestral accompaniment. He leaves and she throws herself to the ground in grief.
31:30 Herman has witnessed all of this, and knows how much of a heel Walter is for dumping Loreley and planning on never telling Anna about her. Little bits of L and S followed by even a little Wagner in the French horns? He hopes that Loreley attains vengeance for what Walter has done **.
36: Triumphal interlude * going into a chorus of spirits. This goes on for about three minutes.
43 “Where am I?” Loreley asks. She gives herself over to the spirits of the Rhine, at first frightened her courage builds as the scene progresses and in the last three minutes she is getting ready for the plunge *.
46: The anticipated drowning sequence, Loreley immerges as an immortal being. A bit of L and a sort of resilience theme first heard in the overture closes the act **.
Act 2 (38 minutes)
0: Racing prelude, strings and woodwinds with percussion, horns coming in. Almost fairy like *.
1:30 Anna’s aria (with female chorus), as she prepares for the wedding ***. Notice the quotation of the “Lovers” motif from Wagner’s Die Walkure.
8: Organ, the wedding is soon. Anna has another choral-solo.
10:30 Herman arrives and incredibly sweetly (and lyrically) decides to tell Anna to give up Walter **.
14: Nothing doing says she. Something similar to but not quite the S theme appears here.
15:30 A Wagnerian pre-wedding march, leading to a chorus. Majestic, but it sounds about thirty years in the past **.
17: A Choral Waltz **. Watch for 20:30 where a bit of L creeps in very quickly in the violins. The ending sounds almost like Tchaikovsky as the harp comes in.
24: Walter’s romance with Anna, a bit of strongly veiled L theme *. It sounds both bel canto and Wagnerian at the same time.
26: Rudolfo addresses the couple, chapel bells. Is this finally the wedding march? *
30: Loreley’s entrance, cymbals and a horn announcing her immanent arrival. It builds up. S theme.
31:30 She speaks, L theme comes in strongly for the first time since the overture. If it was beautiful there it is almost dramatically haunting here ***.
34: Walter and chorus, then Loreley and everyone. Loreley reinforces the L theme, Walter follows her in exquisite rapture ***.
38: Condemnation from the chorus, as Walter wants to follow Loreley (she disappears) and Anna faints after he admits he doesn’t love her at all. Final symphony is rather good dramatically in itself **.
Act 3 (38 minutes)
0: Furious music, dying and rising followed by a mostly calm(er) male chorus between the woodsmen and the fishermen. It sounds strangely Verdean **.
4:30 Female chorus joins, gongs. Anna’s funerary cortege arrives ***. The male characters (Walter, Herman, Rudolfo) all sing their remorse over Anna’s death with Walter crying out “Anna! Anna!”. The cortege moves on to an oddly placid theme.
13: Rudolfo and Walter are left alone and in despair. Walter particularly although suddenly when we could not be more in despair L shows up **, then back to despair.
16: Happy theme, Walter regrets everything.
18:30 S theme, Walter flees. The Dance of the Water Spirits **. One brief woodwind part near the beginning resembles the Soldiers’ Chorus from Gounod’s Faust. No sure what the point of a six and a half minute ballet is but it is pretty. A bit of S at the end.
25: Loreley arrives, calling. Walter realises that Loreley is a spirit now, a beautiful duet **.
31: Walter’s final aria, incredibly traditional melody. Turns into a duet with Loreley **, orchestral climax.
34: S theme returns, chorus, Loreley tells Walter what to do (drown himself in the Rhine as she had done).
36: Loreley returns to the L theme one last time in triumph. Not mythic, and it doesn’t sound haunting this time, it actually comes off rather human. Fade out strings and harp finale **.
Comments: When we look at Catalani we must remember that he was something that could have been rather than something that was. He never caught on and other than His final opera, La Wally, he never achieved any real success in his lifetime and he was dead a year and a half after La Wally premiered in January 1892. His music is so unique and so strange, especially for the 1880s and early 90s in which he wrote five of his six operas. Catalani was a student of Wagner, and although a critic of Verdi for political reasons, to say that his music is a synthesis of Wagner and Verdi would be an understatement. Catalani was one of the few composers to do this, and the old one to retain traditional Italian vocal writing in the process. Strange that he has been overshadowed by the Verismo school which first breathed life the same year Loreley came out.
Loreley is a revision of Catalani’s previous opera Elda. Set on the Baltic in pre-Christian times as opposed to Loreley’s 1500 Rhenish setting, it has no seen the light of day since its first production and no recording or digital copy of the score exists. Elda was in four acts, and nine tableaux. Loreley is in three acts, and only four tableaux. From a translation from Italian Wikipedia (the only source of information on the original opera) the plot was much more convoluted including two public confrontation scenes instead of just one, multiple walk on characters, and the main scene of the third act set in a temple to Odin of all places! Musically, I hope that the new opera contains all of Catalani’s best music from the original because otherwise it would be such a shame. The scene order in Elda seems to be greatly changed compared to Loreley. Act 1 scene 1 is basically identical in both versions, but Elda then has a failed wedding sequence (with Elda as the bridesmaid!). Then Elda promises her soul to the Baltic sea in Act 2 scene 1 in order to extract revenge on Sveno (Walter’s original name). She then interrupts a party and is arrested along with Sveno. Ulla (Anna), pleads to have Sveno freed and promptly dies offstage. Something about a candle not going out saves Elda (who unlike Loreley is actually mortal until the final scene) from planned execution, and Sveno is only spared because it was Ulla’s death wish that he be spared. Act 4 appears to be Act 3 of Loreley just combined into a single tableau and at the end Elda pays her price to the Baltic for making her powerful and becomes a siren.
Catalani’s orchestration is incredibly original for an Italian opera. His usage of cymbals for instance is similar only to Boito’s Mefistofele, which was also influenced by the composer’s Wagnerian designs. The music in general does not fit well compared to works from about the same period if one has explored the repertoire. Catalani’s most successful opera “La Wally” was more “modern” and in keeping with the Verismo trend, although even there it was distinct. Loreley is almost a nostalgic look back at a long since buried era of Italian music, or at least it would be if not for the trace elements of Wagnerian orchestration.
The five soloist roles are very strange. Anna is a glorified extended cameo for a world-famous star soprano that is begging to be picked up by someone who isn’t second rate. Rudolfo is rather thankless with about 24 lines total and much of that in unison with the chorus. Perhaps that would make him an easy attraction for basses? Herman is not really the villain, but his music makes him seem like he is. In the Elda his equlvalent was a bit more wicked so this might be why. Walter is a jerk, but he is also a tenor and his music is (next to the two ladies) the most beautiful. Finally Loreley herself. It is hard to fault this role, she is actually not on stage that much, forty to forty-five minutes of a two hour opera and apart from her song and duet with Walter in Act 1 Scene 1 scene is mostly confined to the final ten minutes or so of each act.
Unfortunately we will probably never know what Elda sounded like, although the libretto is available online. My hope is that the best of Elda ended up in Loreley, and the best of Loreley is quite good actually. There is a strong usage of motifs in the music, no doubt due to Catalani’s fondness of Wagner. Loreley, along with Catalani’s other works, marks a transition in Italian opera. Verdi only came out with a single new opera in the period Catalani was active between 1875 and 1892 and apart from Ponchielli’s La Gioconda, Catalani actually had no real new competition from when he graduated from the Milan Conservatory until 1890, with Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana, and after La Wally, he only had less than twenty months to live anyway. Yet his style never caught on. He was called too Wagnerian by the Verdeans and too Verdean by the Wagnerians. Apart from Toscanini, who named his daughter after the title character of Catalani’s final opera “La Wally” and his son after Walter in Loreley, no Italian conductor would perform his works after he died. Today, many famous Italian conductors refuse to take part in productions of Catalani’s work. I feel that this is greatly unfair not only to Catalani as a musician but also to the opera going public. Catalani represented something that could have been, a modernisation of Italian opera without the rejection of tradition that occurred with the tide of Verismo and Puccini. He was the Japan of Italian opera composers, modernising without becoming western, or rather, “realistic”. He was a tree that bent but did not break, and now he is simply and unjustly ignored. Even in the semi-realist La Wally there is an air of the whimsical to Catalani that is terribly lacking in the works of any Italian composer after him, Puccini included.
Catalani was in some ways similar to Giacomo Meyerbeer in that he combined Italian vocal writing with Germanic orchestration to create a superior art form. Unfortunately, and unlike Meyerbeer in the early part of the 19th century, Catalani was never given much of a chance for success, nor ever had Meyerbeer’s financial cushioning with which to protect himself. He was also like Meyerbeer in that he wrote works that answered the styles trending in his day with a call back to traditional concepts as Meyerbeer had done in Le Prophete and L’Africaine. His style was, like Meyerbeer is today, attacked and belittled by almost everyone (Toscanini a great exception that alone begs one to question if everyone else is either stupid or duped by popular opinion), and even his home town of Lucca prides itself for its son Puccini rather than him. He also did not have much time, living to only age 39 because of Tuberculosis, and much of his most creative period was spent dying. Yet he was able to work in spite of his disease and completed his two most respected scores during this end game period. One can only imagine whatever else Catalani might have written if his genius would have been allowed to transcend even the Act 4 Prelude of La Wally and the Dance of the Water Spirits from Loreley (his two most known single standing orchestral pieces). Even if Italian opera had been revolutionised by Catalani as he attempted, what might the result have been? Probably an even earlier death for the Verismo genre whose decade long death throws over-extended the careers of certain one-hit wonders like Mascagni, Leoncavallo, Giordano, and Cilea who spent the next fifteen to twenty years labouring over abortive attempts of seconding their fifteen minutes of fame. Puccini could have been an historical footnote instead of Catalani had the Ricordi publishing house taken on Catalani instead of Puccini and not built up his career in a sort of king-making act, the result of which being Manon Lescaut, La Boheme, Tosca, and Madama Butterfly. Verdi could have had an actual successor in Catalani, or rather, there could have been a reconciliation between Verdi and Italy with Wagner and Germany musically. Puccini would never come close to doing this and he was after Verdi’s 1901 death the only composer with enough clout to do so at all. So with Catalani we have an enigma of style, someone who could have been world famous and could have changed things but due to circumstances we have the reality in which we live.
Back to Loreley, the music is so melodic, the orchestration so full. The pacing is good as well, and none of the role except possibly the tenor are all that demanding. It is however a flawed masterpiece, the plot is not all that engaging. It has a series of beautiful themes, and there is never exactly a moment that is dull. It lacks side-stories, the characters are singularly focused and when they fail to achieve their goals they simply die (usually by suicide). Apart from confronting the actions of the tenor and attempting to warn the sopranos, the other two male roles are lacking in personal development whereas the sopranos dominate every moment they are present. Herman’s love for Anna causes him to essentially disappear once she dies, turning a primary character in the first two acts into a tertiary immediately. For once I actually wished an opera had longueur numbers, only the chorus is able to take us away from the main plot which is THE plot and then only for brief interludes. It is possible that the main reason Catalani failed is because of his Nordic settings. Loreley moved to the Rhineland from the Baltic Sea, but La Wally is set in the Austrian Alps. Catalani’s other three operas are set in Arabia, Ancient Greek Sicily, and Bohemia (present day western Czechia). Like Verdi’s Stiffelio (an unfair fiasco from 1850) Italian audiences have never been able to accept operas that even take place in “German” settings. Catalani may be a victim of his own internationalism, a similar argument is made after Meyerbeer for his cosmopolitanism.
So the finale grade: A- to B+.