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Catalani wally 806404
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Alfredo Catalani (1854-1893)
La Wally (1892)
Wally - Izabela Matula (soprano)
Giuseppe Hagenbach - Leonardo Capalbo (tenor)
Vincenzo Gellner - Jacques Imbrailo (baritone)
Walter - Ilona Revolskaya (mezzo-soprano)
Stromminger - Alastair Miles (bass)
Arnold Schoenberg Choir
Vienna Symphony Orchestra/Andrés Orozco-Estrada
Barbora Horáková Joly – stage director
rec. live, November 2021, Theater an der Wien, Vienna
Reviewed in stereo
UNITEL 806404 Blu-Ray [135]

The career of the short-lived Catalani only really produced one opera of substance in the shape of his proto-verismo treatment of La Wally, based on a German play by Wilhelmine von Hillern (entitled rather disconcertingly The Vulture Wally) set in the Tyrolean borderland between Austria and Italy. It was hailed by Toscanini as a work of genius (he named his daughter after its heroine), but competition with the slightly younger Puccini, no less than his early death, effectively condemned Catalani to near-eclipse outside his native Italy. A commercial recording of the work did not appear until the late 1960s, when the Decca team of Renata Tebaldi and Mario del Monaco gave it an outing with Monte Carlo Opera forces conducted by Fausto Cleva. Unfortunately the performance by these two veteran singers did little to disprove the reputation of the opera itself as a slightly vulgar precursor of Cavalleria rusticana and Pagliacci which were to come along a few years later, and establish the notion of opera as a reflection of “real life” with a greater degree of melodic involvement to bring the public in. A later recording of La Wally featuring the youngish Eva Marton and Francesco Araiza perhaps served to refute the idea that the work served best as an outlet for singers past their prime; but it did little to suggest any additional degrees of subtlety in the music itself. And there, with the reputation of the opera effectively reduced to a single aria which could be found in the repertoire of every Italian prima donna, matters might well have rested.

It came as something of a surprise therefore for the work to have been taken up outside Italy by the Theater an der Wien, despite its Tyrolean subject. And I must admit that even in this performance, to a musically sceptical listener, it took some time for the real musical merits of the score to establish themselves. The opening choruses of peasant jollification seem all too redolent of the opening scenes of Der Freischütz, and the jealousies of the various protagonists (and the hard-hearted father who takes against his daughter’s preference for a husband) seem petty and uninvolving. It is not until nearly the end of Act One that a real sense of drama begins to invade the action, and suddenly in her showpiece aria Ebben? ne andrň lontana the heroine assumes tragic status as she goes into exile in the mountains (with an accompanying chorus providing suitably atmospheric background). In the second Act, following the death of her father, Wally is able to let her real feelings show, only to find that she is treated as a figure of mockery not only by her supposed friends but also by the man she really loves, who only kisses her in order to win a bet with his mates. Her sudden transformation from suppressed romance to incandescent jealousy is superbly handled here, and the characterisation suddenly begins to assume a realism that one might have never expected from the more forthright interpretations featured on those old sound recordings. The working out of the jealousies over the next two Acts is sympathetically handled, until in the final scene the hero is overwhelmed and swept away by an avalanche (one of those operatic endings that will always assure La Wally a place in the more comic annals of theatrical history). The music here rises to real heights, with the extensive prelude to Act Four a magnificent evocation of the high peaks of the Alps and its cavernously wide-spaced woodwind octaves clearly providing a model for Prokofiev in the opening of his Alexander Nevsky over sixty years later.

As may be gathered from the foregoing, much of the responsibility for the impact of the opera lies with the singers; an insensitive performance can effectively reduce the music to simple ranting. And the cast here is very impressive indeed. In the title role Izabela Matula has the full Valkyrie metal for her big moments, but at the same time is able to fine down her voice to delicate half-tones which encompass much of the heroine’s more vulnerable emotions. Her singing of her big aria is steady as a rock, and she holds the audience in the palm of her hand to the extent that they do not ruin the transition into the closing scene of Act One by bursting in with unwanted applause. As her feckless lover (who cannot even be bothered to tell her that the woman of whom she is so jealous is actually his sister) , Leonardo Capalbo looks every inch the charming playboy, and one can well believe both in his callous disregard for her feelings and then in his sudden realisation of love even when he is told that she planned to have him murdered. His singing is pretty special too, heartfelt and charming by turns.

Even better is Jacques Imbrailo as his rival, far from the cardboard villain that one finds in other performances, and singing in a manner that well suits his move into Italian repertory. He too finds plenty of dramatic meat in his part, and evokes pity as he degenerates into a shabby muddy wreck while still craving the affection that he understands he can never receive. The opening onscreen titles shave off the first initial of his name; he deserves better. Alastair Miles makes something sympathetic even of the blustering and bullying father, and Ilona Revolskaya is thoroughly believable as the scruffy boy who becomes the heroine’s only genuine friend. Sofia Vinnik makes much of little as Hagenbach’s misunderstood sister, and even Zoltán Nagy as the anonymous peasant creates a real character with sympathetic eyes staring out even through his alcoholic haze. The Arnold Schoenberg chorus assume their operatic roles with full-bodied and enthusiastic commitment, and they mix well and unobtrusively with the extras. And one must not overlook the contribution of Tiziano Mancini, who as always seems to appreciate when we need to see the singers in close-up and when it is best to draw back.

The staging is rather a mixed bag; the direction of the singers themselves is superbly well handled by Barbora Horáková Joly, who gets the best results from her performers. The actual settings by Eva-Maria van Acker are less convincing. They begin excellently, with a distant prospect of the mountains through back projections designed by Tabea Rothfuchs which immediately set the scene. But these are soon replaced by different projections, which appear to represent hands clasping and unclasping, although it is far from clear precisely what they are or what they are intended to symbolise. At the end of the Act, as Wally goes into her exile up the mountain, the panorama clears and once again the atmosphere is well preserved. The stage is generally bare throughout the first two Acts, although the miniature villas and cottages scattered around give an unwantedly twee effect. But in the second half we are suddenly presented with a boulder-strewn landscape and reams of bare metal scaffolding, which are presumably intended to represent Wally’s Alpine retreat and the mountain paths leading to it but are very far from atmospheric. Hagenbach’s fall into the ravine is represented by his being overwhelmed by some obviously lightweight plastic boulders, and the avalanche itself is even less effectively portrayed with some very obvious front projections of falling water and snow. Incidentally, there great play made in this production with real water, effective in the earlier scenes where characters wash their hands or sprawl in the mud but less so in the final Act where what is presumably intended to represent an Alpine waterfall brings decided suspicions that someone upstairs has carelessly left the tap running. But then, we should be grateful that the production has not inflicted some much more grotesque images on us; an alternative version available on video introduces supernatural elements in the final scene to invoke the avalanche (where the whole final Act is viewed as the heroine’s delirium), which would seem entirely out of place in an opera which so deliberately focuses on the human inter-reactions of real people. The reputation of La Wally as a precursor of the later verismo style is well deserved, and the fact that the action here is updated to the present day disturbs me not one whit. Indeed the costumes serve to emphasise the very real nature of the characters in terms of modern psychology, and the singers are not afraid to get themselves believably grubby, dirty and blood-stained. Even the only slightly incongruous element, that of the stern father dictating precisely who his daughter shall marry, is unfortunately still with us today, although one might hope that the heroine’s reaction would be more rebellious nowadays.

No, despite the occasional failures of tone, this is a good representation of an opera that I must admit I had always tended to dismiss as an example of effect triumphing over reality. Much of this is due to the singing, and the playing of the excellent orchestra under Andrés Orozco-Estrada. For some obscure reason, subtitles are not provided in the original Italian; instead we are restricted to English, German, Korean and Japanese (if I were French, I would feel both slighted and annoyed). Why in a medium like Blu-Ray should subtitles be limited in this fashion? Surely the peripheral costs of providing this sort of material in Spanish, Russian and so on, would be rewarded with even marginally increased sales.

In the meantime however I can earnestly recommend this video as – finally – a substitute for the Decca audio set that has perforce served us for half a century, and the best available performance of an opera that really does not deserve its almost total neglect outside Italy.

Paul Corfield Godfrey
Other Cast and Production Staff
Peasant – Zoltán Nagy (baritone)
Afra – Sofia Vinnik (soprano)

Eva-Maria van Acker – set and costume designer
Tabea Rothfuchs – video designer
Michael Bauer – lighting designer
Erwin Ortner – chorus director
Tiziano Mancini – video director

Video Details
Filmed in HD - Mastered from an HD source
Picture format: 1080i, 16:9
Sound formats: a) PCM Stereo, DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1
Region Code A, B, C
Sung in Italian, with subtitles in English, German, Korean, Japanese

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