Alfredo Catalani: La Wally (1892)

Opera in 4 acts. Running Time: 2 hours 5 minutes. At long last, the last of my Catalani reviews. The recording here is the 1968 studio recording with Renata Tebaldi and Mario del

PLOT: The Tyrol, early 19th century. Wally, a wealthy woman living in the Tyrol Alps, is in love with Hagenbach, but gets Gellner, a man who is in lust with her and who she initially rejected, to kill him promising him marriage in return.

ACT 1:  In front of Stromminger’s home, decked out for a birthday celebration. (37 minutes)

4: Bang! Immediately we are in the Tyrol with some exciting almost Western movie music, a birthday party with shooting contest is underway for Stromminger, Wally’s father. Gellner, his steward, wins the contest and he and Stromminger talk about Hagenbach, who Stromminger hates. Walter (a soprano ballad singer) comes on and Stromminger asks for a song but he would prefer to sing with Wally, who is mysteriously absent. But he sings anyway, the Edelweiss Song ** about a woman who is killed in an avalanche and becomes a flower, it has some really nice coloratura passages and Walter reveals after singing it that Wally herself is its composer.

10: A hunting party arrives to a rowdy loud chorus *, Hagenbach is among them and regales everyone with a song about how he survived a bear attack, it has an interesting clarinet bit but is mostly exclamatory.  Stromminger laughs at him and the two men get into a fight.

15: Wally arrives and breaks up the fight, and she is instantly attracted to Hagenbach ** but the fighting has dampened the party mood and so everyone leaves. At about three minutes into this watch for the orchestral outburst.

19: Gellner tells Stromminger that Wally is in love with Hagenbach, the old man doesn’t believe it and realizes that Gellner wants Wally for himself so he then orders Wally to marry him. Gellner has one really good interjection here ** before Stromminger reveals that he knows that Gellner loves Wally. Wally tells Gellner to cool off, she doesn’t love him.

22: Gellner responds by declaring that not only does he love Wally, she is his entire life. This is a really good, albeit short, aria **.

24: Wally’s response is equally impassioned, negative says she **. Her father returns and tells her to either marry Gellner or leave his home forever, and he says it in the most beguiling way (watch the orchestration here).

28: Ebben, Wally has her song of liberation in exile, an amazingly beautiful piece *** as she plans her life in the mountains.  It is nearly five whole minutes but it sadly flies by too quickly.

33: Some women ask her where she is going, she tells them to the mountains and Walter wants to accompany her, cool says she, let’s go and Walter yodels along as they go into the mountains, accompanied by a church bell **. Watch for the chromatic strings towards the fade out.

ACT 2: In Hagenbach’s village of Solden, one year later. (35 minutes)

0: Another party, this one in celebration of Corpus Christi, it has a good exciting chorus **. An old soldier informs us that Wally’s father is dead, making marry to her a good idea for Hagenbach, but he says that she is too cold and icy.

4: Afra, a local innkeeper who is in love with Hagenbach tells him that love is no joking matter, the other villagers agree with her **.

8: Wally arrives *, the people think she is a queen, no just a very rich woman. She is asked to join the kissing-dance (local custom).

10: Wally declares that she has never been kissed in another amazing aria *** in which she declares that she will have any man brave enough to kiss her.

13: It is time for mass *, the villagers leave for the church.

15, 19: Wally recognizes and confronts Gellner, she is the boss now and she is none too thrilled that she was made homeless because of him, she fires him.  Gellner admits that he still loves Wally, she mocks him * and says she loves Hagenbach. He tells her that Hagenbach is engaged to the innkeeper Afra and then mocks her ** with the same words she just taunted him with which enrages her.

22: Wally insults Afra when she offers to serve her by throwing money at her. Hagenbach picks up the coins and gives them to the musicians to play the kissing-dance and makes a bet (to avenge Afra) with some of the villagers that he can get Wally to kiss him. You sort of feel sorry for Afra here.

23: The dance begins, a return to the “Western” music from the prelude but expanded and much more advanced **, it is a bit wild and romantic, even modern and has elements one would usually attribute to Puccini. Hagenbach declares his love for Wally to some mildly chromatic music but then we get a hint of Wally’s theme, she submits to his kiss to some Tristan-ish music and the villagers laugh at her. She instantly discovers that she has been tricked.

33: Gellner tries to comfort her but she wants just one thing, Hagenbach’s death. The concluding symphony is very dramatic **.

ACT 3: Split scene of Hochstoff. To the left Wally’s bedroom, to the right a street outside her house (24 minutes)

0: Neither this nor the following act is particularly long, and each begins with a long prelude which while being excellent mood setters also come off as padding. The one here is an orchestration of a piano piece written over a decade earlier by Catalani **. The first part is good brooding, but it becomes agitated, good agitated.

4: Wally and Walter return from that party. Wally is starting to show signs of schizophrenia, hears moaning sounds *. Gellner is outside and learns from an Old Soldier that Hagenbach is coming to apologize to Wally. A flute goes off for a while.

9: Gellner tries to discard moral objections to the murder he plans on committing **. Sinister it is, with a good and rather traditional conclusion.

11: Some lite chromaticism as the murder is attempted and Wally comes on regretting wanting to kill Hagenbach. She decides that she must stop Gellner, but the weather is so terrible that she doesn’t think Hagenbach will show up in Hochstoff that night and is probably still in Solden. It comes close to repeating the Wally theme but not quite *.

15: Gellner attacks Hagenbach * and throws him into a ravine. He then tells Wally that he has done away with Hagenbach and she runs out to rescue him.

18: The rescue scene *** is suspenseful with Wally ordering for a rope from the villagers and is lowered down into the ravine to find and rescue Hagenbach herself. When she returns with the unconscious Hagenbach she sees Afra and gives her all of her wealth in reparation for the attempted murder, then she declares that she will now return to the mountains to a minor reprisal of “Ebben, lontano” from act 1. Seven great minutes.

ACT 4: The mountains (29 minutes)

0: Another prelude elongating a short act, but this one is absolutely amazing ***. Everything is here, the Spector of Death (really haunting and returns at the end), romance (a return to the dance melody from act 2), the cold mountainous air (great). Another amazing seven minutes in which Catalani pulls out all of the stops and gives us brilliance. Look out especially for the ending with its allusion to Beethoeven’s 6th Symphony in the flutes. To some extent this is the peak of Catalani’s orchestral powers.

9: Walter visits Wally in her mountain hut where she lives as a recluse. Almost Christmas, he wants her to return with him to Hochstoff but she refuses, giving him her pearl necklace, her last token of her previous wealth, in a good aria **.

12: Wally decides to embrace death, and hears Walter singing her Edelweiss Song **. She starts singing it herself.

17, 22, 26, 29: The rest of the scene ** consists of a duet between Wally and Hagenbach and the final avalanche. At first she hears Hagenbach and thinks it is the wind, then a spirit sent to torture her, then she realizes that it is actually him. He confesses that his kiss during the dance, although involved in a bet, was genuine and she admits to trying to have Gellner kill him. They forgive each other. He was not engaged to Afra (just a rumour) and he thanks her for saving his life. They decide foolishly to leave the mountain, avalanche starts and swallows up Hagenbach. Wally, alone in the darkness of the mountain, jumps to her death. Watch out especially for the last six minutes or so with Hagenbach’s solo** and his brief duet with Wally** (includes choral wind) leading just before the finale storm and the deaths of each, Wally’s especially taking out a level of dramatic superiority difficult to repeat ***.

There is something about La Wally which gives one the impression that it is a masterpiece, or rather at least would be one. Possibly this is due to the massive time and detail Catalani gave to the score, but a masterpiece it just isn’t. It is however an extremely great opera and would be a masterpiece if only Catalani had been able to create better characterizations. None of the characters other than Wally can be defined by the music they sing, and Wally only by her amazingly haunting theme song popping up all the time. Literally anyone else could sing anyone else’s music and it wouldn’t seem that strange. Another problem is the rather ruthless nature of the plot. Why does Wally’s father instantly demand that she marry his steward (a servant) or go live on the streets/in the mountains? Why does she become so enraged after she learns about Hagenbach’s bet (after insulting Afra, so she is hardly innocent) that she tells Gellner to murder Hagenbach? And why does she just as quickly regret her murderous plan and give up all of her money to Afra in recompense? The strongest situation in the opera is her rescue of Hagenbach, and what about Hagenbach? There is so little of him (barely present for six minutes in act 1, a minute of act 3 before he is dumped into the ravine, and although he does play more of a role in act 2, it is mostly in reaction to the other characters (particularly Afra and Wally), not they reacting to him, odd for a leading man. In the 4th act he shows up at the end in order to give a conclusion to the story through his and Wally’s deaths. However, there are a lot of great pieces here such as Walter’s Edelweiss Song and Wally’s “Ebben, Lontano” so famous from the 1980s movie “Diva” in act 1, Wally’s aria in which she declares her kissing-virginity and the kissing-dance in act 2, the rescue scene in act 3, the finale to act 4 and the preludes to acts 3 and 4 (especially the second one). Although the last two acts are rather brief only the last is not jam packed with action or an exciting dramatic situation. One interesting thing is how attractive Wally is musically while as a person she is simply dreadful apart from her rescue of Hagenbach and how Catalani oddly makes the more minor characters such as Walter and especially Afra (Catalani’s only mezzo-soprano role) very sympathetic. Even Gellner is given very attractive music, even when he is contemplating murdering Hagenbach and there is something about his faithfulness to Wally, even to the point of being willing to commit murder for her, that is strangely endearing. In fact, one almost wishes that Wally would have said yes to Gellner, and Hagenbach would have married Afra and the engagement wasn’t just a bad rumour. The act 4 prelude is especially worth repeated mention, particularly its opening and closing Spector of Death parts in which one cannot help but suspect were inspired by Catalani knowing that he was going to die soon from TB. Some of the best music is orchestral and both of the two preludes are absolutely great music, I just love the fourth act prelude a bit more, and can’t apparently say enough about it. In the end, La Wally is just short of a masterpiece and can make one wonder that if Catalani had written another opera, might Italian operatic history have taken a different direction than it did? Is La Wally the last artifact of something that could have been? In any case, an A-.





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