239. La Wally (Catalani)

  • Riduzione drammatica in 4 acts
  • Composer: Alfredo Catalani
  • Libretto: Luigi Illica, after Wilhelmine von Hillern’s Die Geier-Wally
  • First performed: La Scala, Milan, 20th January 1892, conducted by Edoardo Mascheroni

WALLY, a Tyrolean girlSopranoHariclea Darclée
STROMMINGER, her fatherBassEttore Brancoleoni
AFRA, an innkeeperMezzoVirginia Guerrini
WALTER, a zither playerSopranoAdelina Stehle
Giuseppe HAGENBACH, from the village of SöldenTenorManuel Suanges
Vincenzo GELLNER, from the village of HochstoffBaritoneArturo Pessina
IL PEDONE, a former infantry soldier from Schnals  
Tyroleans, shepherds, peasants, hunters, old women, village children  

SETTING: The Austrian Tyrol, circa 1800

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Q: Where’s Wally?

A: Feet up and head down in a snowdrift.

Wally isn’t the beanie-wearing, red-and-white striped cartoon character, but a hardy, half-wild Tyrolean lass. While this is set in Austria, and the heroine composes an “Edelweiss” song, she’s not Maria the happy nun. Wally is beautiful, unpredictable, and menacing as the Alps. She loves and hates passionately and possessively.

The opera is Racine’s Andromaque transplanted to the inns and mountains of the Tyrol. Like Hermione, Wally orders her admirer (Gellner) to murder the man she loves (Hagenbach) when he rejects her, then repents of the deed. Gellner throws Hagenbach into a crevasse; Wally pulls him out of it. At the end, Hagenbach declares he loves her, and the two look forward to a life of blissful contentment. At which point an avalanche crushes Hagenbach. (Which is what happens when you sing opera in alpine valleys.) Whereupon La Wally throws herself off a precipice. It’s one of the most contrived tragic endings in all opera.

La Wally was the sixth and last opera of Alfredo Catalani (1854–93). Catalani was overshadowed by Puccini: both were born in Lucca, and studied music with Puccini’s uncle, Fortunato Magi. But Catalani’s career was chequered. Some of his operas (e.g. Dejanice, 1883) flopped; his publishers, Lucca and later Ricordi, did not support him; and he had to stage others of his works himself.

Catalani is generally considered second-rate. Julian Budden, for instance, describes his artistic personality as “curiously pallid and insubstantial”. Warrack & West, however, argue that Catalani was “unlucky to make his career when Verdi was at the height of his fame, Puccini’s star was rising, and the verismo movement was growing: Catalani’s modest but distinct talent was of another order”.

La Wally is based on Die Geier-Wally, a novel by Wilhelmine von Killern, the daughter of Charlotte Birch-Pfeiffer (who helped to shape Meyerbeer’s Vasco de Gama). “The Vulture-Wally” is Anna Stainer-Knittel (1841–1915), a woman artist; when no-one else would do so, she rappelled down a rock wall to get rid of an eagle’s nest. (The Tyroleans called eagles “vultures” because they attacked sheep.) Catalani read an Italian translation of the novel in the newspaper, and engaged Luigi Illica to turn it into an opera libretto. La Wally was a moderate success – Verdi was apparently enthusiastic – but it did not have the worldwide success Catalani hoped for. Depressed, he died the next year, of tuberculosis.

La Wally is occasionally resurrected, chiefly for the soprano aria “Ebben? Ne andrò lontana”, Wally’s farewell to her father’s home, but its reputation is not great. In Warrack & West’s opinion: “The work has impressive and touching moments, and is carefully constructed, but its effective manner is insufficiently supported by enough strong inventive matter to give it more than occasional revivals in Italy.” According to Budden, “Catalani’s own voice remains elusive and his ideas mostly unmemorable”. Nevertheless, Catalani has his admirers: the conductor Arturo Toscanini thought he had a finer sensibility than Puccini, and even named his daughter Wally, while Phil considers his style an impressive synthesis of traditional Italian vocal writing and progressive Germanic (Wagnerian) orchestration.

Certainly, the orchestration is more striking than in earlier Italian opera; some commentators have compared the monumental style – more harmonic than melodic, full of enormous, harsh brass, wintry strings, and glacial glissandi – to Bruckner. Besides Wally’s well-known aria, the two best pieces in the opera are orchestral passages: the intermezzi to Acts III and IV, tone poems describing Wally’s anguish before Gellner attacks Hagenbach, and the isolation and indifference of the mountains. Vocal display is confined to one aria, sung by a minor character: Walter’s “Edelweiss” song in Act I, a ballad written by Wally that foreshadows her fate. Act III (the attack on Hagenbach) is the dramatic highpoint: Gellner’s murderous monologue and Wally’s angst are intense, and the attempted murder, the rescue, and the big crowd scenes are exciting.


Listen to: Renata Tebaldi (Wally), Mario del Monaco (Hagenbach), Piero Cappuccilli (Gellner), with l’Orchestre National de l’Opéra de Monte-Carlo, conducted by Fausto Cleva, Monte Carlo, 1968; Decca 4607442.

Works consulted

  • Julian Budden, The Operas of Verdi, Vol. III: From Don Carlos to Falstaff, Oxford: Clarendon Press, revised edition, 1992
  • John Warrack & Ewan West, The Oxford Dictionary of Opera, 1997
  • Piotr Kaminski, Mille et un opéras, Paris : Fayard, 2003
  • Decca CD notes

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