Sunday, 6 July 2014

Catalani - La Wally (Geneva 2014 - Webcast)

Alfredo Catalani - La Wally

Grand Théâtre de Genève, 2014

Evelino Pidò, Cesare Lievi, Ainhoa Arteta, Bálint Szabó, Vitaliy Bilyy, Yonghoon Lee, Ivanna Lesyk-Sadivska, Ahlima Mhamdi, Bruno Balmelli

ARTE Concert - June 2014

Like most of Puccini's Italian contemporaries (Leoncavallo, Mascagni, Zandonai, Alfano), Alfredo Catalani's compositions are now rarely performed and all but forgotten. Some of those composers have at least one well-known work that is occasionally revived and performed, but in Catalani's case, although La Wally has some measure of recognition, it's mainly on account of one famous aria in the opera, "Ebben! Ne andrò lontana". Actual staged performances of the work however are rare indeed.

Maria Callas brought some recognition to the work, or at least its famous aria, but more recently its fame has chiefly been through the use of the aria in Jean-Jacques Beineix's 1981 French cult classic film 'Diva'. Involving the trade of a secret bootleg recording of the aria sung by a temperamental soprano who refuses to allow any recordings of her performances, the film played no small part in giving the aria from La Wally an air of mystique, glamour and prestige (and vice-versa the aria the film). 

The revival of Catalani's La Wally at the Grand Théâtre de Genève for the first time since 1962 doesn't attempt anything as ambitious as linking it with Diva - although the theatre promoted their new production with free screenings of the more recognisable Beineix movie - but settles for a traditional staging that simply gives the audience the rare opportunity of seeing the aria in its original context and evaluating whether the opera has any attraction to a modern audience. It proves to be a fine performance of Catalani's opera, even if it doesn't make a convincing case for the work having any lasting qualities.

While it's a pleasant enough work, skillfully composed and dramatised, the problem with La Wally is that it doesn't have any real distinguishing characteristics. With an Alpine setting, family rivalries and romantic entanglements involving a virginal daughter being forced into an marriage of convenience, the subject of La Wally has much in common with opera semi-seria and bel canto works like Bellini's La Sonnambula, Donizetti's Linda di Chamounix and Halévy's Clari. Catalani may not be a Bellini or a Donizetti, but La Wally does have at least one thing going for it. It has one great aria and unfortunately that is likely to remain the opera's chief claim to fame.

The problem is not so much the plot as what you do with it, and musically, La Wally is not particularly adventurous. The subject of the drama could be adapted more closely towards an Alpine version of passions and family feuds in the verismo style of Catalani's contemporaries, particularly Mascagni's Cavalleria Rusticana. (There is even a village religious procession written into the work that is tied to La Wally's declarations of purity). There are in any case plenty of conflicting passions to evoke and bring to the surface and, on the face of it, we also have a heroine who is not entirely an innocent but rather a proud and temperamental figure who gives full vent to her passions. There's plenty here for a soprano to get her teeth into, and you can see why a performer like Maria Callas would be attracted to the role.

The cause of all Wally's problems is her secret love for Giuseppe Hagenbach, the son of her father's long-time enemy. Made aware of this by Gellner - observant to Wally's behaviour since he himself in in love with her - her father Stromminger declares that she will marry Gellner forthwith or leave the south Tyrolean village of Hochstoff forever. Wally chooses to leave ("Ebben! Ne andrò lontana"). Her father dies soon after however and Wally inherits the Eagle Tavern. Jealous over the attentions that Giuseppe shows to the barmaid Afra, Wally responds furiously and throws a drink in the girl's face. In revenge Giuseppe bets that he can steal a kiss from Wally and bring her pride down to size.

This is not a big deal, you might think, not anything that you are going to write an opera about, but Wally has just declared how even a kiss would be a defilement of virginal purity. As she is in love with Giuseppe, she's going to find that a hard position to maintain, and the young woman is indeed made a fool of before the whole of the village. The dramatic resolution to the dilemma that has arisen in La Wally at least gives the work another distinctive feature which makes great use of its south Tyrol setting at the same time as it makes it extremely difficult to actually stage effectively. Having rescued Giuseppe from a ravine that he is thrown into by a vengeful Gellner and achieved forgiveness and reconciliation with the man she loves, Wally dies caught up in an avalanche on the mountain.

That's quite a coup de théâtre if you can carry it off. Director Cesare Lievi at least keeps the drama moving well to take us credibly to this point, and Evelino Pidò conducts the Orchestre de la Suisse Romande with loving attention for Catalani's score. Ezio Toffolutti's production design for the Grand Théâtre de Genève's La Wally is however very much a traditional period costume production with painted backdrops, basic props to represent the village and the tavern in Acts I and II, so recreating an avalanche on the stage was always going to be a bit of a challenge. Act III and IV, where the landscape plays a large part in the drama, is a little more abstract, with walls like shards of ice and a projection of a moon-like skull behind the slope that drops into a ravine. The slope is however merely a long white sheet that drags Wally into the hole at the climax, with flowing dry ice spilling over the backdrop behind her.

It's a basic representation of the scene, but it works reasonably well. Principally that's because Catalani scores practically the whole of Act IV as a lament for all Wally's troubles without stretching to bel canto ornamentation, but mainly it's because Spanish soprano Ainhoa Arteta makes this position (a precarious one) feel achingly real. She's not Maria Callas by any means, but it's a challenging role that the success of the opera rests upon, and Arteta carries it through impressively. Act IV also gives Giuseppe the chance to match himself to the soprano in a glorious duet, and it's here that Yonghoon Lee also demonstrates his worth. The other roles are less critical, but are also well performed here with Ivanna Lesyk-Sadivska's pure, clear timbre marking her out in the trouser-role of Wally's only true friend Walter.

Links: ARTE Concert, Grand Théâtre de Genève