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Alfredo CATALANI - Opera’s Great ‘Inbetweener’
by David Chandler
Alfredo Catalani, c.1889, by Vespasiano Bignami
Woe betide the creative artist who gets pigeonholed as a ‘transitional figure’! Though Leonardo da Vinci, Mozart and Shakespeare are all, arguably, ‘transitional figures’ and nonetheless recognized as towering geniuses, more often a suspicion of ‘transitionality’ leads to an assumption that the artist in question was not quite one thing or another, that he or she represented ‘unfulfilled promise’. Greatness is looked for elsewhere.
Alfredo Catalani has long been afforded a brief part in the story of Italian opera as a ‘transitional figure’. Born in 1854, the year after Il Trovatore and La Traviata, and dying in 1893, the year of Falstaff and Manon Lescaut, he is acknowledged as a key figure in the transitions from Verdi to Puccini and Mascagni, and from grand opera to verismo. In another sense, too, Catalani has been squeezed into musical histories as an ‘inbetweener’, for his great love of Wagner led him to write operas which seek to reconcile the Verdian tradition with the German music-drama. This lofty goal has generally endeared him to neither the Verdian nor Wagnerian camps.
Catalani established himself as a powerful and innovative presence on the Italian operatic scene in the course of Verdi’s long semi-retirement between Aida (1871) and Otello (1887). He became famous in his hometown, Lucca, with a beautiful early Mass (1872), and then achieved wider fame with La Falce (‘The Scythe’), the sensational one-act opera, with libretto by Arrigo Boito, with which he graduated from the Milan Conservatory in 1875. At this time, as his revealing letters to Stefano Stampa spell out, and as La Falce demonstrates, Catalani was very prejudiced against Verdi, while at the same time considering himself of Wagner’s ‘party’. One must suppose that his feelings toward Verdi were shaped by what Harold Bloom, in the literary context, has famously termed ‘the anxiety of influence’: Catalani had to misrepresent Verdi in order to find an alternative way forward for Italian opera. Later, he was proud to know the older composer, and to have his approval for La Wally. On Verdi’s side, too, there was increasing admiration and understanding; after Catalani’s early death, Verdi mourned him as ‘a good man and excellent musician’, and obtained a commemorative bust.
La Falce led to the promising young composer being picked up by Francesco Lucca’s publishing house, now run by his wife, the formidable Giovannina (1814-94), who mentored Catalani’s career over the following decade at the same time as she tried to popularize Wagner’s operas in Italy. Catalani was soon at work on the four-act Elda, a supernatural subject based on the Loreley legends of the Rhine. It was a clear gesture of support for the Wagnerian cause, but the vocal lines, which prompted comparisons with Bellini, are unmistakably Italian, and overall Elda impresses as the work of a composer with a confidently individual vision. It was premiered at the Teatro Regio, Turin, in January 1880, where it proved reasonably popular and got good reviews. But it was a difficult opera to stage, and did not get taken up by other Italian theatres. Catalani, feeling that he needed a popular success (mainly for financial reasons), went on to write the much more conventional four-act Dejanice, premiered at La Scala in 1883. Dejanice, though locally influenced by Wagner, is overall much closer to the style of Ponchielli, and directly challenges comparison with La Gioconda - Mahler, an early admirer, thought it much better. Catalani again tried something new with the much slighter Edmea, a rapidly-composed three-act opera premiered at La Scala in 1886. An intensely lyrical but rather introverted work, Edmea was in some ways a surprising popular favourite, but it was widely played both in Italy and abroad, and achieved far more success in Catalani’s lifetime than any of his other operas. Since his death, by contrast, it is the one that has inspired least interest.
After Edmea, Catalani’s close friend Giuseppe Depanis (1853-1942), a Wagnerian critic, encouraged him to revise Elda, which was recast as the three-act Loreley, a ravishingly beautiful opera with a much more organic sense of form and greater dramatic urgency. Unfortunately, Catalani now experienced a hiatus in his career. Loreley was finished in 1887, but in spring 1888 Giovannina Lucca retired and sold her business to her great rival, Giulio Ricordi. Catalani soon found that Ricordi had little time for him, and he had to wait until the debacle of Puccini’s Edgar (April 1889) was over before the publisher started to show an interest in promoting the much superior Loreley. From this time on Catalani was embittered by Ricordi’s clear preference for his fellow townsman, Puccini. Loreley was premiered at the Teatro Regio, Turin, in February 1890, to considerable success, but it was slow to get taken up by other theatres, in part because of Ricordi’s apathy. Catalani was already well into the composition of his final opera, La Wally, an almost perfect synthesis of Italian tradition and Wagner, premiered at La Scala in January 1892. It contains by far his best known aria, Wally’s achingly beautiful ‘Ebben? Ne andrò lontana’, featured prominently in the cult French film Diva (1981) as well as in Philadelphia (1993) and A Single Man (2009). La Wally was a popular triumph, but Ricordi again did little to promote it, and it was soon overshadowed by Falstaff and Puccini’s Manon Lescaut. Catalani, who had been afflicted by tuberculosis since his teens, and whose career had represented a constant battle with illness, was unable to start work on another opera. He died on 7 August 1893.
How to interpret and value a career like that of Catalani? Guido Salvetti’s 1993 essay, ‘From Elda to Loreley: contradictions of the passage’, epitomizes, in schematic fashion, the begrudging recognition afforded Catalani by many opera scholars and opera lovers. Taking as his reference points Elda and Loreley, Salvetti implicitly concedes that Catalani was the key figure in 1880s Italian opera, but at the same time argues that it was a very unsatisfactory decade, a period of ‘crisis’ that saw a dearth of ‘masterpieces’ and ‘a sort of messianic wait for a redemption’ (‘una sorta di attesa messianica di un riscatto’). Catalani’s operas reflect the crisis, but fail to offer plausible solutions. ‘Redemption’ finally came in the shape of Cavalleria Rusticana, which arrived wonderfully pat in 1890, three months after Loreley, to put ‘an end to the fascinating complexity of the 1880s’. Catalani is thus the ‘transitional figure’ between Aida and La Gioconda on the one hand and Cavalleria and Pagliacci on the other.
The merit of such an argument, if it has any at all, is mainly to produce a tidy, simplified, linear narrative. The problem with it is that Salvetti confuses artistic and commercial success. There is no question that Cavalleria Rusticana has always been much more popular than any of Catalani’s operas – but anyone wanting to attach excessive importance to that should remember that Andrew Lloyd Webber’s operatic musicals have been far more popular still. Mascagni showed an astonished world that opera was not yet divorced from popular culture, but he did not resolve the artistic issues that Catalani had been wrestling with since the mid-1870s. Indeed the best rebuttal to Salvetti’s argument may be simply to consider the future course of Mascagni’s own career, which rather than being a string of Cavalleria clones moved steadily toward ambitious attempts at the sort of Italian Wagnerian opera Catalani had aspired to write. In other words, one might say ‘the fascinating complexity of the 1880s’ returned to haunt Mascagni, just as it haunted the next generation of Italian opera composers. That younger generation, headed by Italo Montemezzi, Franco Alfano, Riccardo Zandonai and Ildebrando Pizzetti, were hardly influenced by Cavalleria Rusticana, or indeed Puccini, at all. But they had no doubts about Catalani’s importance. Montemezzi, who enjoyed the greatest success of these composers with L’Amore dei Tre Re (1913), admired Catalani above all his Italian precursors, and as late as 1938 Zandonai was orchestrating Catalani’s beautiful piano piece, In Sogno, a great favourite of Toscanini’s.
Catalani, then, far from being merely a ‘transitional figure’ who kept a seat warm for Puccini, actually did more than anyone to set the agenda for Italian opera in the half century after Aida. That agenda was to create a meaningful response to the Wagnerian music drama. Loreley and La Wally were superb demonstrations of what was possible, and I would rank them, with L’Amore dei Tre Re, among the greatest products of Italian Wagnerianism. Remarkably, they enjoyed their greatest popularity between about 1905 and 1930, when the fuss over verismo had subsided and Catalani’s more subtle and spiritual qualities could be appreciated, almost, it seemed, for the first time. It is the refinement of Catalani’s musical language, his steady refusal (apart, perhaps, from in Dejanice) to over-egg his puddings and serve honey as sauce to sugar, that distinguishes him from his immediate contemporaries. As Toscanini, his friend and greatest champion, stated: ‘He [Catalani] was the most simpatico of the composers, refined – he wasn’t crude as the others, Puccini, Mascagni, Giordano, or even Franchetti.’
Catalani deserves a hearing, and anyone with a serious interest in Italian opera between 1870 and 1920 should acquaint themselves with Loreley and La Wally at least: listening with a view to appreciating this composer’s distinctive excellence rather than seeking quick and damaging comparisons with Verdi or Puccini. La Wally is still revived reasonably regularly, albeit not in the Anglophone world. All credit, though, to Opera Holland Park for a stirring and well-received production in 2011. A good example of the way this opera can impress even the skeptical was afforded by Rupert Christiansen’s review of the production for the Daily Telegraph. Christiansen, who had been scathing about most of Holland Park’s revivals of lesser-known Italian operas from this period, was overwhelmingly positive about La Wally: ‘Nine times out of 10, there are good reasons why operas fall out of favour or languish neglected, but Catalani’s La Wally is the exception. … Covent Garden should take it on now.’ There are several good recordings of La Wally available, most of them featuring Renata Tebaldi in the lead role: my favourite is the 1968 studio recording Tebaldi made with Fausto Cleva conducting the Orchestre National de l’Opéra de Monte-Carlo.
Loreley is revived much less often, the main objection to it generally being that it treats of supernatural events. I have no patience with this objection, for like Catalani, and like the earliest creators of opera, I feel the operatic medium is superbly equipped to deal with the supernatural! There is also no recording of Loreley that I would unreservedly recommend, but the various issues of the 1968 La Scala performance with Elena Suliotis in the title role make a good case for an opera that deserves to be much better known. It is noteworthy that both Giuseppe Depanis, Catalani’s best critic, and Toscanini, his best interpreter, considered the third act of Loreley to be the composer’s greatest single act. A good studio recording is a real desideratum.
The rest of Catalani’s music has been surprisingly well served by record companies, especially Bongiovanni. There are reasonable-to-good recordings of La Falce, Dejanice, Edmea and the orchestral music available, good recordings of the piano music and early Mass, and excellent recordings of the songs and chamber music. But anyone new to Catalani is strongly advised to start with La Wally and Loreley.
Catalani’s Operas

  1. La Falce. 1 Act. Libretto: Arrigo Boito. Milan, Conservatory, 19 July 1875.

  2. Elda. 4 Acts. Libretto: Carlo D’Ormeville. Turin, Teatro Regio, 31 January 1880.

  3. Dejanice. 4 Acts. Libretto: Angelo Zanardini. Milan, La Scala, 17 March 1883.

  4. Edmea. 3 Acts. Libretto: Antonio Ghislanzoni. Milan, La Scala, 27 February 1886.

  5. Loreley. 3 Acts. Libretto: Carlo D’Ormeville revised by Angelo Zanardini and others. Turin, Teatro Regio, 16 February 1890.

  6. La Wally. 4 Acts. Libretto: Luigi Illica. Milan, La Scala, 20 January 1892.


David Chandler

Doshisha University, Kyoto
David Chandler has edited two books on Catalani (reviewed here), mainly consisting of translations of key Italian texts: Alfredo Catalani: Composer of Lucca and The First Lives of Alfredo Catalani. Both are published by Durrant Publishing: see
Translations of Catalani’s letters to Stefano Stampa can be found in The First Lives of Alfredo Catalani; Verdi’s description of Catalani comes from a letter to Edoardo Mascheroni, quoted often in the Catalani literature; Mahler’s preference for Dejanice over La Gioconda is recorded in Henry-Louis de La Grange’s biography; Guido Salvetti’s article, ‘Da Elda a Loreley: contraddizioni di un percorso’, can be found in Rivista di archeologia storia, costume 21 (1993), 83-95; Montemezzi’s admiration for Catalani is expressed in Charles Henry Meltzer, ‘Montemezzi and His Music’, The Review 1 (1919), 587-88; details concerning Zandonai’s orchestration of Il Sogno can be found in Konrad Claude Dryden, Riccardo Zandonai: A Biography (Peter Lang, 1999); the Toscanini quotation is from the Larry Weinstein film, Toscanini in His Own Words; Rupert Christiansen’s review of La Wally can be found at


































































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