Cher Public

Mountain high, valley low

Be wary of operas that are famous for just one aria or just one famous opinion. Those of us who have attended Rusalka or Romeo et Juliette or Adriana Lecouvreur or Der Widerspenstigen Zähmung have been well-warned and had their fingers slightly burnt. But sometimes, in the proper circumstances, such works have their charms. 

One sits through the performance undistracted by expectation. You don’t know what the composer has in store for you, or when he will play his cards, or what explosions lie ready to be detonated by the proper singer, the proper production, the proper zeitgeist.

And so I went to the Wiener Volksoper for Alfredo Catalani’s La Wally, a work renowned (as much as it can be said to be renowned) for “Ebben? Ne andrò lontana” (that aria from Diva, y’know) at the end of Act I, and for little else. Catalani died quite young, long and fondly remembered by his buddy Arturo Toscanini, who conducted the premiere and named two of his three children for characters in the opera.

Catalani’s brilliance as an orchestrator, if not quite so anarchic as Arrigo Boito’s, is justly remembered, and the intermezzo (every opera of the post-Verdi era was expected to have an intermezzo, to prove that Italians could change scenes just as vividly as the Germans could) can be thrilling if played with color and distinction .

This, indeed, occurred at the Volksoper by their branch of the Staatsoper Orchestra, suavely led by Frank Piollet, musicians more likely to be heard in Carl Millocker’s Bettelstudent or Frank Loesser’s Wie man Karriere macht, ohne sich anzustrengen.

La Wally was given, as is the Volksoper’s usual habit, in German translation. The opera puzzled me the last time I saw it (fifty years ago with some dame named Tebaldi) in putting characters named Gellner and Hagenbach in an Italian opera.

Doing it in German fixed that problem. Some auditors might miss the grace of the Italian linguistic line in such very Italian music, but I was very happy with everything but the one singer who could not seem to make her instrument achieve the transition from Germanic training to Italian flow.

One does not, these days, expect Tebaldi or Claudia Muzio or even Wilhelmenia Wiggins Fernandez, but “Ebben? Ne andro” is the sort of aria that only achieves its point if it is sung with buckets of sound hurling those phrases over Alpine crevasses with an elemental sorrow.

Kari Postma is a handsome woman and an excellent actress, and one sympathized with her portrayal of the haughty self-destructive heroine, but she did not make us ache for her sorrows. The voice kept to the pinnacles, the surface of the vocal line; it did not plumb depths to back them up. It was a sketch for a verismo heroine, not the achievement of one.

The rest of the cast were largely excellent. One thing to report is that the score contains more of interest and appeal than that one aria – a tune that comes back as a leitmotiv, of course, but not a leitmotiv beaten into the ground, as Cilea, for one example, would have done.

If you have a good tenor, as at the Volksoper with slim, curly-haired Vincent Schirrmacher, with many a sweet, purling phrase, you will take more than a little delight in the seduction duet of Act II, when Hagenbach and Wally fall in love on the dance floor.

Schirrmacher was first rate, too, in the long final scene when he climbs the mountain to the shack to which Wally has retreated – only to have her perish in an avalanche before they can be united, rather like Tristan awaiting a possibly hallucinatory Isolde (which I daresay was Catalani’s inspiration).

In this production, and I’m not sure how much this was librettist Luigi Illica’s idea or a brainstorm of the director, Aron Stiehl, Wally is going mad from solitude and despair, and Hagenbach, an apparition in white (every costume in the production had hitherto been some shade of gray, from dove to charcoal), is singing the adoring words any lonely lover would crave.

The climax, then (slightly fudged at the Volksoper), is simply the end of her life, her last conscious instant, Schirrmacher’s voice ringing in her ears. He was very Italian (though singing in German). Not at all a bad way to go.

A word on the plot for those unfamiliar with the story: Wally is the strong-willed heiress of an Alpine honcho. Her father, sung by grand old Kurt Rydl, sounding grand … and very old, has decided to secure the succession to his property by forcing his daughter to marry his steward, Gellner (baritone Morten Frank Larsen), who adores her and has excellent intentions. But he’s stout and unattractive (he wears glasses!) and he’s a meddler.

The opera relates a series of misunderstandings that are taken too far by several passionate people unable to say they’re sorry. Wally refuses to marry Gellner and he refuses to give her up. Therefore she abandons her father and takes to the mountains (singing “Ebben? Ne andrò” as she climbs – which is probably great for building lung strength), her only companion a youth named Walter whom no one ever seems to suspect she might take as a lover.

Yes! You guessed it! Walter’s a trouser soprano! Beate Ritter did the honors, not too incredibly, with a yodeling aria about a girl who died in an avalanche and became the Edelweiss. But she had no trills.

Dad dies, Wally inherits, and she treats the villagers with hauteur. She will dance with none of these small-town goatherds. But Hagenbach, a smart-mouthed bear-hunter from down the valley who is engaged to a local girl named Afra (sung by tall Martina Mikelic, a sexy actress with an alluring, Dalila-level mezzo – the quartet for Afra, Walter, Hagenbach and a bass is another number worthy of more hearings), comes to the dance and makes a bet that he can not only take Wally out on the floor, he can get her to let him kiss her.

The swirling turntable-within-another-turntable set by Frank Philipp Schlossman, covered with abstract spotted cubes and triangles to make a very convincing Alpine landscape, is also just the place for the game of hunt-and-pursuit that ends with Wally indeed yielding a kiss to Hagenbach. By this time he’s genuinely in love (to the point that Wally insults Afra) and has forgotten the bet with the boys.

They haven’t forgotten, however. Wally, affronted by their laughter, asks Gellner to kill Hagenbach. He attempts to do so. Hagenbach, shot, falls into a ravine. Wally, of all people, climbs down and brings him back. I couldn’t imagine how that scene could be staged, but Mr. Stiehl and Mr. Schlossman, happily, could – and it worked.

Wally, depressed by the way her life is going, moves to Vienna to consult a rising Jewish psychologist. No, she doesn’t, but that would have been reasonable and Franziska Jacobsen‘s handsome gray costumes of the proper era would have made it opportune.

Instead Wally gives her property to Afra, renounces love and life and society, and goes back to the mountains, where Act IV finds her in a shack in rags, kicking Walter, her last friend, out of her life. There is nothing left. Then she hears a long-forgotten voice, and a figure in white ambles over the peaks ….

There is one more matter, the figure in a charcoal-grey trench coat sung by Daniel Ohlenschlager in a very imposing bass and acted with chilling authority. But who was he? He parts the curtains, summons the conductor, snaps his fingers to make the set revolve.

He looks meaningfully at a girl singing hymns and she topples over, dead. He impersonates various small figures in the drama, the infantryman who informs Gellner that Hagenbach is out hunting, the fourth part in the lovely Act II quartet. He arrives at the end to obscure our view of whatever hysterical Wally and angelic Hagenbach are up to behind the hut. He ends the show. He was very good. But what was he?

The only thing missing from this fine performance was a genuine spinto with oodles of Italian sound. But find me such a soprano today, eh? No reason to miss out on La Wally just because we haven’t got one.

Photos: Barbara Pálffy/Volksoper Wien


  • I understand about operas that survive for only one famous aria or maybe two, but am very surprised to find Rusalka and especially Romeo et Juliette placed in that company. While perhaps not perfect, Rusalka is pretty prime Dvorak and has many joys scattered throughout the score. Gounod supplied his leading characters with one really great aria each and four gorgeous duets that are considered the strong backbone of this opera which more and more I am seeing called Gounod’s finest achievement.

    As to the La Wally production, there seems to have been a lot of rewriting of the last part of the opera. In the original libretto Hagenbach comes back to Wally up in her mountain retreat and they reconcile. He then goes outside and is swept away by an avalanche.
    Wally runs out of her cabin and calls out to all of Nature that the she is Wally, Haugenbach’s wife and throws herself off the precipice to her death where his body buried in snow somewhere below.

    • La Cieca

      There is this too in Rusalka, and if we could only have Pavel Cernoch to sing it all the time, I think it would right up there with “Nessun dorma!”

      • Oh, yes!

        • Bill

          Rusalka is a gorgeous opera throughout --
          nary a boring moment musically. Rusalka’s
          “Song to the Moon” became popular earlier
          before the full opera was widely performed internationally outside of the Czech Republic and Slovakia.

      • Charles Anthony Neeley

        If we could only have Pavel Cernoch all the time, I think no one would ever sleep.

    • Audran’s La Mascotte is mainly remembered for this duet:

    • Porgy Amor

      When I encounter someone who bitches “Why are they doing Rusalka anyway? It only has one good aria!” I look the person up and down and think, “Huh. I guess some of those are still on the road.”

      I mean…so much anemic treacle survives because divas and divos want to sing it, and something as brilliantly conceived and developed as Rusalka is suspect?!

      But some people’s notion of “the repertory” was formed in the 1950s or 1960s, and the further we get from that time, the less open they are to the unfamiliar. if Zinka or Renata or Vicky or Joanie didn’t sing it on the radio on Saturdays, it’s “new” and thus suspect. Doesn’t matter whether it’s a year old or 300 years old. (Not referring to John Y. here.)

    • This is the story of my life, Will. I am amazed that people find it far fetched. It’s also a wonderful score. For those who read music and can play the piano it’s easy enough and a true delight. There are also great performances around (Tebaldi live from Naples — less from La Scala where she was sick — a DVD where Zampieri is thrilling and Pinchas Steinberg conducts exquisitely, the Tebaldi/del Monaco complete, late in the day for them but a decent realization in supersonic sound, La Wally’s arias including the anthem of my life “Ne mai dunque avro pace?” can be heard wonderfully done by many of the sopranos of the ’78 era).

    • John Yohalem

      Thanks for the proper synopsis, Will!
      I had completely forgotten it, and Volksoper’s seemed mighty contemporary though convincing.

  • David Prosser

    The first opera I ever experienced live was Aida with Wilhelmenia Wiggins Fernandez (Opera North, 1985/86). As an impressionable young student the glamour of seeing the star of Diva on stage was very exciting. As was the opera

    • Zac

      She seemed to have had an amazingly short career. What ever happened to her?

  • Ivy Lin

    Rusalka only known for one aria? It’s a gorgeous score from curtain to curtain, and the water gnome aria is fairly well-known.

    As for R&J, which aria are you talking about? There’s Juliette’s waltz, “Ah leve toi soileil”, “Ange adorable,” the Potion aria, the Act Two duet, the bedroom duet, and the tomb duet. All are very famous and often done in concert or recorded independently.

  • Camille

    “But what was he?”

    Maybe Dr. Grenvil wandered over from the Decker Traviata?

    Wally does sing a lot about ” fantasmi”, especially in that fourth act exposition of hers. I mean to say, the air is thin, there’s “scarso cibo”, and you miss your boyfriend, whom you’ve set up to be murdered--that’s hallucinatory all right.

    It’s fun to hear and nice to know that La Wally lives on as it does have its many felicities, at least for me. That Afra quartett I am fond of, too, and years ago on a radio station in San Frncisco (KDFK or KKHi?) it was played on a regular basis for god only knows what reason. The brooding curtain raiser to the last act is awfully fun to plink away at on the piano, when one is in a dour mood. No, no more Tebaldi, but at least there are all those recordings of her--the first of which, from La Scala, captured her in glorious voice. And yes, at the back of the score the original ending from the first performance is shown--the improvement, which is done, is pretty much an improvement, at least to me. I love this opera, warts and all, and am happy to know it’s alive and well somewhere in the world. If it was good enough for Toscanini, it’s good enough for me, but then, I like his other works, especially Loreley as well. There’s no accounting for tastes.

    To make up for the lack of an affecting “Ebben, ne andrò lontano” I proffer this sublime version as compensation. By a strange circumstance, it was on my playlist and the last thing I had listened to when I learned that Tebaldi had just died, back in the first decade of this century. A more fitting tribute to that luminous beauty I could not imagine.

    • southerndoc1

      Thank you, Camille. By chance, just happen to be halfway through my first ever listen to the late 60s studio version. Tebaldi is more stentorian (it’s a HEAVY sing) but still in great form. What a wonderful role for her, lying mostly in the most gorgeous part of her voice. I wonder if she ever tried to convince Bing to put this on for her? It’s a very enjoyable opera -- I guess it would be hard not to make some of the stage action, falling up and down precipices for the last two acts, come across as risible.

      And thank you John for the review.

      • Well, I realize I know nothing, certainly not as much as the poster “Southern Doc” thanks (it’s someone I have blocked, I recommend that all who haven’t yet, block me, since I have nothing to say).

        No, Tebaldi never tried to convince Bing to do La Wally, she knew it wouldn’t fly. (I knew her, too, though we talked about things like rep after she had left the Met and for the most part, her career.)

        The recording is too late, although as a way to hear the work it will do. It’s also badly conducted by someone with no imagination, Fausto Cleva (just the sort the Met adores), and it’s VERY late for Del Monaco.

        They opened La Scala (with Renata Scotto, who also had memories, curdled ones. She sang MY secondary role, Little Walter). Tebaldi was sick, De Sabata who had prepared a lot of it, had a heart attack or was pushed out (depending on who you believe.) La Signora Wally Toscanini (Countess Castelbarco) hated De Sabata as did her august father, although it was he who had discovered De Sabata long before. The Countess, a Callas freak, also hated Tebaldi.

        Giulini (who also had memories) went in fairly late in the game, hated the opera and didn’t establish a rapport with the singers. He memorized all scores but was a slow learner and was frustrated in having to use the score in performance.

        The dim sounding pirate is lousy, only someone who is unmusical would think otherwise, although it is a good sample of the young(ish) Del Monaco in a killer role.

        Tebaldi’s next engagement as Wally was at Naples and it was broadcast. She’s fantastic, her tenor is the Italian Wagnerian Turrini who is very good.

        By the time she got to the Met Tebaldi had put the very heavy role behind her — except for the famous aria — and the later recording.

        But please block me. Misinformation spread with manic spasticity is always so much more fun.

      • Camille

        I share your feeling about that recording and found it to be rather heavy bobsledding upon first hearing although quite fascinating for the decibel levels and the more than minor oscillations of tonal centers.

        Be warned, there is a third recording from somewhere in time between these two: her partner in Alpine bliss is Dino Dondi. Of the three the first is my favorite. About Madame Claggart’s mention somewhere of a Neapolitan essay I know naught but am intrigued as she found that such an hospitable house. Who knows how many pirates there may be out there as well?

        I’ve always been very grateful for her assumption of this role as, other than the movie Diva, it’s likely the only reason we still are acquainted with Catalani. It’s also nice that Toscanini got to see the “rinvincita” of his beloved friend via this scaligera production, very late in his life. It must have been a great satisfaction.

        • southerndoc1

          La Claggart’s typically informative post seems to have disappeared. Dove sono?

          There’s also a 1960 RAI version with Prandelli which I have, pretty much prime Tebaldi -- would love to track down the Napoli version.

          • Thank you for reading that, Southerndoc1, I reconsidered it but it’s enough that your eyes graced it. Yes, that is the RAI version, where her top is getting a little unruly but she is quite thrilling. The conductor is her long time boyfriend, Arturo Basile (who discarded whom and why is subject to much speculation, although those who adored Big Renata thought he was an asshole). He is a live wire conductor, not subtle but exciting and he knows the style. The tenor is Prandelli, somewhat past his freshest and a little light for the role, but an artist.

            I also think the Marton RCA recording has qualities. By then she (possessor of a great voice) had become somewhat squally and unreliable, but it is the right kind of instrument, and she is temperamentally wild, which is exactly what Catalani and Illica, his librettist, ask for (if you look at a score you can read Illica’s insane description of Wally’s arrival in act one).

            Marton has Araiza as a tenor, again on the light side and forcing, but lively. However, this is wonderfully conducted by Pinchas Steinberg who really understands the style which includes not only a prefigured verismo flamboyance but much harmonic imagination and instrumental delicacy.

            I think it is a great opera, although one with a crazy libretto and a sensibility lost to us. Catalani died in Toscanini’s arms of TB. Toscanini refused to leave the body and sobbed for days. It was apparently the first and last time anyone ever saw him that upset. Toscanini thought Italy had lost a great composer way too young — 41. Catalani hated Puccini who was from the same town (Lucca) and Toscanini used to tell Puccini he would never match Catalani.

            Puccini’s first big opera, Edgar, is written (in it’s first of three editions) in Catalani’s style. Now and then the “real” Puccini flies out (maybe because we recognize the sections Puccini reused in Tosca). Catalini had a wonderful musical mind, quite distinctive harmonically, but couldn’t quite find a completely workable manner for the stage (La Wally, premiered the year before he died, is the closest to working). Still I love Dejanice and Loreley — also an utterly insane story but quite thrilling.

            • Camille

              I am very happy to hear of your high opinion of Catalani’s skills. I always start to speak of him and then decide not to, as when I have people kind of stare or go silent or scoff. He has interesting ideas harmonically.

            • Nelly della Vittoria

              I love Loreley and have relatively little difficulty giving way to the madness of the plot — anyway to love it is to be maddened yourself as from the stings of asps or the yank of the new moon’s gravity. The soprano roles both seem quasi-impossible to sing or to cast — and how many would be likely to try, today? — but the prayers of the mad must have some power, if we’re good.

              Do you believe that story of Frances Alda’s, MrsJohn, about the Parmigiani hissing the Anna for cracking in “Amor celeste ebbrezza” and singing it back at her? It’s a weird moment in the memoir, where she seems to attribute Loreley to Verdi (?) and her copy-editor never caught it.

            • Nelly, I don’t think Souliotis is bad on the pirate — she had quite a thrilling voice when she started and then had serious problems within a few years. My favorite recording of the end of act one (very exciting) is Ester Mazzoleni, who sings it complete and as written. There is also a fabulous Biaca Scacciati of that finale, one really wild and garlicky mama. And Muzio did her own vision on Edison, cut, with some workarounds (though it contains a rare high C from her).

              Alda probably let her fantasies run wild but then again I was at a Barber of Seville in Rome where the entire audience hated the singers so much THEY sang along very loudly with pretty good ensemble! So such things did happen… Alda’s record of Amor celeste ebbrezza (my theme song) is quite wonderful, with beautiful trills (although what precisely they’re doing there raises some questions.) There’s also an out of tune Magda version.

              Dimitrova did it in the early ’90’s but I haven’t heard of any staged productions recently, although there is a concert performance in Prague in June with Elena Rossi.


            • Nelly della Vittoria

              Ohh I know, that Bianca Scacciati recording is to die for, just TO DIE. Also she sings the scales in those scenes as if she were scaling mountains and each note were a grappling hook. Also she has — not the thing you’d call Nobility of Utterance, exactly, but some scary older cousin of Nobility’s — call her Consonantal Conviction. The thing that allows you to say Non son più larva di fanciulla morta! Walter, per vendicarmi io son risorta! and mean it in deadly earnest.

              Yes, I’ve heard the Muzio and spent some time figuring out where the cuts and edits were made; and also the Mazzoleni, uncut.

              The trills are baffling but v. effective in making you leap out of your skin in surprise, as Madame Alda probably well knew. I have a probably deeply unfair vision of an Advanced Curriculum at the Studio Marchesi that included lessons in Surprise Trilling, Against-Pillar-Leaning** and Audience-Leap-Out-of-Skin-Making.

              **(Frances A says her own Against-Pillar-Leaning was inspired by Eleonora Duse in Francesca da Rimini but I have my reservations)

            • Camille

              Girls, girls, girls!!!

              Those trills are WRITTEN in the score and no invention of Alda’s!

              Poke your noses onto pp. 117--119 (Ricordi piano/vocal) and you will very plainly see what’s there!

              Most of ’em just can’t even approximate them, especially that killer at the end. Her leap on the ottavo is very nicely negotiated as well.

            • Nelly della Vittoria

              I assumed that they were written, and also assumed Mrs JC meant Catalani’s decision to write them was a confusing decision; I may have easily been wrong on either count or both!

              But thanks for looking in the score as I’ve long been too lazy to do!

            • Good to see you Michael. I think I heard that Bongiovanni ed. some time ago and remember it being a lot of fun.

              Nelly, of course I know the Loreley score. When embedded in a melodic line trills need to serve a harmonic function. They don’t in Anna’s aria. So why exactly Catalani chose them is unclear. I have long blocked the contributor you mention and don’t see the horseshit. Someone who is musical as you are immediately gets the problem with those trills. Someone who isn’t is just posturing.

            • Camille

              Oh I love La Scacciati’s oldtime goodness as well as she so brings this to Life!

            • Michael Hardy

              The Bongiovanni live recording from Luca with the Biancaesque Martha Colallio is worth checking out.

            • Michael Hardy

              The live Bongiovanni Loreley with the dementia Martha Colallio is worth a listen, guite Biancaesque.

            • Camille

              I believe Franny. It’s just like them people.

              Of course; she was a diva and they have been known to exaggerate. She could sing the damn thing, though, and of that we may be certain.


              Including that damn trill at the end that not even Never Say Die Magda didn’t even approximate. Maybe, just maybe, she told
              the story to enhance her own image and sell this recording, marked 1912.

            • Nelly della Vittoria

              Camille, the chief node of my distrust of Alda’s (v. entertaining) memoir is the timeline she provides of her education, where she was never allowed to sing a note till she was 18 but sometimes furtively did so anyway, then went about singing comic opera because she was Naturally More Gifted than others, then breezed into Marchesi’s studio for a cool seven or eight months and emerged therefrom a Gilda for the ages. It makes no sense physically or pedagogically and it must be a telescoping of the truth to make the diva seem more impressive. Silly, because the recorded legacy (however English her Italian is) is accomplished and impressive enough.

            • Camille

              Very well. I understand now but I thought you two girls were possibly concluding it was some interpolation of Franny’s. She had to lie about her age, though, a Diva’s Duty, therefore all the telescoping.

              I haven’t read it for at least twenty-five years now and what I remember most is her frolicking on the Lido and her nuzzling around with someone toward the end of her marriage with Gatti. Well, he had that ballerina galli, so he wasn’t nlameless either. She was quite a card.

  • Camille

    And mentioning Der Widerspenstigen Zähmung, which is what I thought was going to be reviewed here, has anyone ever heard it, live, I mean? I am acquainted with but one aria excerpt from it and it was surprisingly effective. Maybe it’s fallen by the wayside, as so many others have. That also goes for Der Evangelimann,too.

  • Zac

    I read the opening paragraph of this article without first opening it in its entirety and said out loud — immediately after Mr. Yohalem had mentioned a couple of operatic examples — “But what about ‘La Wally’?” I was subsequently delighted to see it was the subject of this well-written and informative discussion. I really like my copy of the opera on CD (Eva Marton and Francisco Araiza on Eurodisc from 1990), finding it far more valuable than its singular soprano aria. Too bad the only commercial DVD version has received such poor reviews, which has tempered my interest in buying it.

    And totally off-topic (except for the DVD part), I see they’re doing Meyerbeer’s “Margarita d’Anjou” this summer at Martina Franca. One would hope that means a Dynamic DVD in our future!