Saturday, November 19, 2016

La Wally (Catalani)

This is my post from this week's Once or Twice a Fortnight.

From a flood to an avalanche!

This installment of OTF looks at Alfredo Catalani’s opera La Wally, in a recording I moined off the LiberMusicasite. More on the performance later in this post.

Unless you’re an above-average opera devotee, you probably know but a few things about La Wally. One is that the hero and heroine both die in an extremely-difficult-to-stage avalanche in the final scene. Another thing may be that this was a favorite opera of conductor Arturo Toscanini. In fact, he loved it so much he named his daughter after Wally (his other two children, Wanda and Walter, were given names that began with “Wa” for the same reason). Finally, this opera boasts a hugely famous aria for soprano, “Ebben, ne Andro Lontana?” a concert favorite of many sopranos.

La Wally is about a beautiful girl in a small German town. Wally (short for Walburga) reminds us of Minnie from Puccini’s La Fanciulla del West because she’s pure, pretty tough and all the men in town are in love with her. Wally is secretly in love with a man from another town named Giuseppe Hagenbach who is also her father Stromminger’s enemy.

As in most operas, impossible love is a complicated thing, and when circumstances make it possible for Wally to be with Hagenbach, he’s no longer available. After an episode Wally views as betrayal, she turns to a long-time suitor Gellner and insists that if he loves her he must kill Hagenbach.
The plot gets a little complicated from here – Gellner stalks Hagenbach and in the deep darkness of a winter night, he hurls him into a ravine. Wally, disturbed and guilt ridden, goes to save Hagenbach by repelling down a mountain. Later, she returns to the mountainside (most likely with suicide on her mind) and encounters Hagenbach, recovered from his injuries.

Finally, they profess their love to one another. Hagenbach goes to find a path down the mountains but as he calls for Wally, he sets off an avalanche sweeping him away to his death. Unable and unwilling to continue to safety, she cries “Here is the wife of Giuseppe!” and hurls herself down into the avalanche, killing herself.

La Wally was a hit when it had its La Scala premiere in 1892, but began a descent into obscurity - along with the rest of Catalani's works - soon after the composer's death the next year. In the days before CGI and multi-media, it would be quite a feat to mount an opera with such a climax - the avalanche plays such an important role in the denouement, it would be impossible not to create something that passes for one for a stage production. This probably explains why it’s not been performed much – in the United States, La Wally has been a rarity since the last Metropolitan Opera staging in 1909. But recordings pirated from Italian performances and a commercial set starring Renata Tebaldi have made it a cult classic, high on many an operaphile's list of unjustly neglected works.

The performance I am sharing today is of the live 1953 Opening Night at La Scala with Renata Tebaldi, Mario Del Monaco and Giangiacomo Guelfi (three immense voices in their prime; no wonder there was an avalanche!) as well as the Scala debut of Renata Scotto, all conducted by the excellent, late, lamented Carlo Maria Giulini. And God bless the Milanese who simply cannot contain themselves in the final scene and applaud the avalanche. 

Alfredo CATALANI (1854 –1893)
La Wally (1889-91)
opera in four acts, Italian libretto by Luigi Illica after Die Geier-Wally: Eine Geschichte aus den Tyroler Alpen(The Vulture Wally: A Story from the Tyrolean Alps), by Wilhelmine von Hillern

Renata Tebaldi, (Soprano; Wally)
Mario Del Monaco, (Tenor; Giuseppe Hagenbach)
Gian Giacomo Guelfi (Baritone; Vincenzo Gellner)
Renata Scotto, (Soprano; Walter)

Coro del Teatro alla Scala
(Vittore Veneziani, Chorus Master)
Orchestra del Teatro alla Scala
Carlo Maria Giulini, conducting
(Live performance: Milan, 7 Dec 1953)

Synopsis –
Libretto -
Performance URL -

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