The aria – “Ebben? Ne andrò lontano” – famously adorning the films Diva and A Single Man is almost as ubiquitous as the eponymous heroine’s name – which features in the Guinness Book of Records as being mentioned more times in Catalani’s rarely performed opera than in any other. Quite what the short-lived composer would have made of this bizarre notoriety is anyone’s guess but to have at least one number to rival Puccini in popularity might have provided small consolation for always having remained in his shadow.
Catalani’s La Wally is a strange piece about cruelty breeding cruelty until – wait for it – an avalanche brings redemption and purification for its star-crossed lovers. Now there’s a challenge to concentrate the mind of any opera designer, leave alone one, Jamie Vartan, working within Opera Holland Park’s limited resources. But it’s amazing what you can do with a succession of ropes and pulleys and one humungous tarpaulin. With a little stretching of the audience’s collective imagination and some stage-hand muscle you can create peaks and ravines and even, during Catalani’s beautiful final act prelude, have the entire mountain range rear up before us.
So much for the sights but what of the sounds? That aria apart, much of La Wally’s sporadic gorgeousness happens in the orchestra where the German influence (especially Humperdinck) is as much in evidence as the Italian. But La Wally really needs singing and Opera Holland Park’s motley casting made for some strange imbalances and infelicities. Stephen Richardson’s short-lived Stromminger was pretty indomitable in act one and director Martin Lloyd-Evans certainly didn’t pull any punches with his brutality. Stephen Gadd made a fist of the obsessive Gellner but was short on style and charisma and Alinka Kozari was something and nothing as the androgynous Walter.
But Gwenneth-Ann Jeffers “vulture-maiden” and Adrian Dwyer’s Hagenbach were physically and vocally a bewildering mismatch, he stridently over-parted, she an awkward stage presence with only glimmers of the vocal style that has stood her in good stead at OHP on previous occasions. Now and again a lovely phrase or just a single note would emerge and now and again it was exciting – but the quality was inconsistent and the longer line poorly sustained.
A nice touch, though, on Lloyd-Evans part, that we glimpse her “inner-self”, the girl she longs to be – pretty, feminine, sylph-like – finally tumbling into eternity.