La Wally, Opera Holland Park, OHP, August 2011

Act I of this opera is super, ending with Wally’s famous aria Ebben! Ne andrò lontana (Well then! I shall go far away) sung with great dramatic purpose by Gweneth-Ann Jeffers.

Wally and Stromminger, all photos Fritz Curzon

Rather than sing this as a set piece aria, she alternated beautifully between pensive moments and real power. Her stubbornly narcissistic father Stromminger, well-portrayed by Stephen Richardson, has thrown her out after making a fool of himself, throwing a punch at a young man named Hagenbach and landing flat on his back. Realising his daughter cares for Hagenbach, he stupidly insists she marry his mate Gellner, for whom she feels nothing. She has her father’s stubbornness, refuses point blank and leaves their Austrian village to live in the mountains.

That’s the end of Act I, dramatically staged by Opera Holland Park, with a wonderful shooting incident where someone holds a beer glass at arm’s length while a shot is fired shattering the glass.

Hagenbach and Wally

In Act II a year has passed and Wally’s father, a wealthy farmer, is now dead. All might be well for a marriage between Wally and Hagenbach, but things go badly wrong, and Act II loses momentum. The fact that it’s a bit confusing is illustrated by reading various synopses, which don’t agree on whether Hagenbach is now betrothed to a tavern owner named Afra. Gellner tells Wally he is, but Gellner’s a 24-carat prat whose idiotic machinations lead to Wally’s decision to marry him if he’ll kill Hagenbach, which he tries to do and fails. In the end in Act IV — yes there are four acts — Hagenbach comes into the mountains to find Wally and shouts up to her. This starts an avalanche that kills him, and Wally leaps to her death.

The libretto is based on Wilhelmine von Hillern’s tale from the Tyrolean Alps: Die Geyer-Wally (The Vulture-Wally). The rather odd name Wally is short for Wallburga, which was also the name of an English missionary, canonised on May 1, who gave her name to the term Walpurgis Nacht for the spring festival on that day. There may also have been a young woman Wallburga Stromminger, whose legend led to von Hillern’s story.

Gellner and Stromminger in Act I

The libretto is by Luigi Illica, before he started collaborating with Puccini whose theatrical sense would not have tolerated such unsympathetic characters, nor the unnecessary complexities of Act II. This is where Wally insults Afra, so Hagenbach insults Wally (but the relationship between Hagenbach and Afra is not clear, nor the extent to which the insult to Wally is fully intentional). She feels slighted so she decides to marry Gellner and have Hagenbach killed. Odd. Momentum is never quite restored after Act I, and the opera has not entered the standard repertoire despite a successful first night at La Scala in 1892. The composer, Catalani (1854–93) came from the same town as Puccini who was four and half years his junior. He was a fine musician who took over as professor of composition at the Milan conservatory after Ponchielli’s death. Greatly influenced by Wagner, he tried to match music to words, but the vocal line in this opera keeps changing and the effect is not memorable. The music is sophisticated, but perhaps unnecessarily so. For example, in Act I Wally’s friend Walter (a high soprano part, nicely sung by Alinka Kozari) launches into a song of the Edelweiss, which one might expect to be given a folk melody, but it isn’t and it’s over dramatised. Perhaps Catalani might have achieved more later, but he suffered ill health and died of TB before he was forty.

Hagenbach looked charming and was well sung by Adrian Dwyer, with Stephen Gadd performing strongly as Gellner, along with Heather Shipp as in the thankless role of Afra. Peter Robinson’s conducting was first rate, and Martin Lloyd-Evans’s production showed huge energy and commitment from everyone. I’m delighted that Holland Park has put this on, and while there are good reasons it’s not in the standard repertoire, they do a terrific job of bringing these little known operas to the public. Mascagni’s L’amico Fritz was another case in point this season, and in 2012 they will do his one-act Zanetto as part of a double bill.

See this while you can. Performances continue until August 12 — for details click here.

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