La Wally – Opera in four acts to a libretto by Luigi Illica after Wilhelmine von Hillern’s story Die Geyer-Wally [sung in Italian with English subtitles]
Wally – Gweneth-Ann Jeffers
Stromminger – Stephen Richardson
Afra – Heather Shipp
Walter – Alinka Kozari
Hagenbach – Adrian Dwyer
Gellner – Stephen Gadd
Il Pedone – Charles Johnston
Opera Holland Park Chorus
City of London Sinfonia
Martin Lloyd-Evans – Director
Jamie Vartan – Designer
Philip Gladwell – Lighting
Reviewed by: Peter Reed
Reviewed: 29 July, 2011
Venue: Opera Holland Park, Kensington, London
Alfredo Catalani’s one enduring opera La Wally (pronounced ‘valley’) hasn’t been staged in the UK since the 1960s (and Wexford staged it in 1985), although films such as Diva and, more recently, Philadelphia, have used the heroine’s famous Act One aria ’Ebben? Ne andro lontana’ (So be it, I shall go far away) to overwrought effect. In the opera, Wally gets the suitor she doesn’t love into killing the man she does after the latter has humiliated her, and then, after a last-minute mutual mountain-top declaration of love, finds a redemptive death with him in an avalanche. Loopy though it may be, it packs quite a punch. Catalani (1854-93), a contemporary of Puccini, not only looked north to the snowy Alps for inspiration but also to the inescapable influence of Wagner, but apart from that one aria and a couple of attractive orchestral preludes, the music is not that memorable.
Wally is an obsessive, awkward and uncompromising character, positively hurling herself at oblivion in the mountains to resolve her guilt and remorse, and Gweneth-Ann Jeffers’s performance took on aspects of the role very convincingly. As her Leonora in OHP’s La forza del destino last year, and Senta in The Flying Dutchman proved, Jeffers is quite at home with big, mythic roles, Dramatically, she created a space that separated her from other characters; and some of her acting, especially when she tries to transform Wally from alpine tomboy to village maiden, wasn’t exactly instinctive. She more than makes up for it, though, in her singing, with a fiercely penetrating soprano of steely flexibility. For some tastes, she might have overplayed the scooping up to a note, and there was an attractive but dangerous volatility at the top of her voice reminiscent of Gwyneth Jones, but she is a commanding vocal presence nonetheless.
The men in Wally’s life don’t come off that well musically, but Stephen Gadd brought Gellner (whose love for her is robustly unrequited) to vivid life, superbly dramatic and singing of consistently high quality. As her love-object, Hagenbach is more complex – taking the idea of hurting those we love the most to extremes. Adrian Dwyer conveyed conflicted cruelty with considerable panache, and his lyrical tenor made its mark in the role’s high tessitura. One more man in Wally’s life, her abusive father Stromminger, who wants to force her into marriage with Gellner or she’s no daughter of his and who dies after Act One, is balefully recreated in fine Wagnerian style by Stephen Richardson. Wally’s friend Walter (a trousers role) is well sung by Alinka Kozari, but the part sits oddly in the drama.
Martin Lloyd-Evans’s direction sexed-up the two suitors roles rather well, at least to the extent that they didn’t come across as ciphers, and the staging as a whole, one of OHP’s more austere productions, doesn’t get in the way of the music. Jamie Vartan’s huge, stage-wide, grubby white tarpaulin, which can be arranged by pulleys (worked by some very visible stagehands) into mountain ranges, is clumsy but effective – although you could easily imagine it being done much more simply – with some tables and chairs completing the economical picture. Peter Robinson’s suave conducting brought out some intriguing orchestral detail and kept the pace flowing. Collectors of late-romantic Italian opera shouldn’t miss it. Who knows when it will come round again.
- Performances continue until August 12