As avalanches are most likely to occur this month “Trove Thursday” ushers in February with Catalani’s La Wally with a mountain-top cast of Renata Tebaldi, Renata Scotto, Mario del Monaco, Giangiacomo Guelfi and Giorgio Tozzi conducted by Carlo Maria Giulini.

Wally always strikes me as the quintessence of an opera with an aria everyone knows but the work itself remains virtually unknown. Back in the day verismo arias were not my thing so I believe the first time I heard “Ebben! Ne andrò lontana” was watching Jean-Jacques Beineix’s Diva when I was in grad school.

Although I’ve never covertly recorded a performance, I was still madly buying pirate tapes back then and so identified with the film’s young hero. In the opening scenes, he fiddles with the knobs of his sophisticated recorder while being mesmerized by the prima donna aura of “Cynthia Hawkins” (played by Wilhelminia Wiggins Fernandez) as she sings the Wally aria. I remember wondering where this heavenly aria had been all my life!

I eventually searched out a complete performance with Magda Olivero (of course!), one of the few divas for whom the opera has been staged in the post-war era. Others have included Raina Kabaivanska, Mara Zampieri and Carol Neblett in addition to this starry revival with Tebaldi which opened the 1953-54 La Scala season. Did opera’s two great Renatas ever sing together again? “Little” Renata who sings the trouser-role of Walter was just 19 at the time of this Wally but she, like just about every other soprano, eventually recorded “Ebben!”

The first Wally was Romanian soprano Hariclea Darclée who also premiered Tosca and Iris. I hadn’t thought that Wally was ever done at the Met but there were indeed four performances in 1909, the opera’s US premiere starring Emmy Destinn in her debut season. She also performed Aïda, Marta in Tiefland, Nedda and Santuzza (but not on the same evening), Butterfly, Eva, Marenka in The Bartered Bride, Alice Ford, the Verdi Requiem… and Gerhilde in Die Walküre across 1908-09! Wow!

The Met’s Wally was conducted by Catalani’s great champion, Arturo Toscanini. A friend gave me Harvey Sachs’s mammoth new biography of the Italian maestro for Christmas and it’s full of mentions of Wally as Toscanini so loved the work that he named his daughter after the opera’s heroine.

Tebaldi eventually did sing the opera in New York fifteen years after this Scala gala though not at the Met. American Opera Society produced it with Carlo Bergonzi and Peter Glossop around the same time she recorded it for London with Del Monaco. It’s been done at least twice here in concert since with Aprile Millo and Opera Orchestra of New York in 1990 and Manon Feubel and Teatro Grattacielo in 2002.

The only US staging in recent memory included only part of the work; the Dallas Opera produced a “snow” double bill in 2015 which included the world premiere of Everest by Joby Talbot and Gene Scheer along with just the final act of Wally with Latonia Moore and Carl Tanner.

Other than some more recent concerts in Europe starring Violeta Urmana and Eva-Maria Westbroek, no one else lately has stepped up to embody Catalani’s final heroine (he died at 39 not long after its 1892 premiere). Could Sonya Yoncheva, who has already embraced Mascagni’s Iris and Giordano’s Siberia, be the next Wally?

Catalani: La Wally

Teatro alla Scala
7 December 1953

Wally: Renata Tebaldi
Walter: Renata Scotto
Afra: Jolanda Gardino
Hagenbach: Mario del Monaco
Gellner: Giangiacomo Guelfi
Stromminger: Giorgio Tozzi
Il pedone: Melchiorre Luise

Conductor: Carlo Maria Giulini

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