Opera Holland Park has as its speciality little-known Italian operas from the last decade of the 19th century and the first decade of the 20th. It’s a period that seems to have been swarming with composers who were eager, somehow, to combine the ardours of Verdi with the larger symphonic constructions that were being created across the Alps.
OHP has turned up some worthwhile specimens, of which last year’s Francesca da Rimini by Zandonai was one of the classiest. This year is La Wally by Catalani, of which everyone knew, or still does, the hit number ‘ebben?…N’andro lontana’ thanks to the movie Diva. Alas, that turns out not only to be the best thing in the score, but also to have been composed, as a song, 15 years earlier. Catalani was a passionate Wagnerian, and does his best to organise this opera on a large scale, but though the orchestration is arresting, the melodies or musical motifs aren’t, or not enough for you to feel that the whole thing is a cumulative structure. The interludes which precede Acts III and IV are especially weak. Nor is Catalani impressive in the music of action — indeed very few composers are — and here a lot is called for, since this piece is set in the Tyrolean Alps and the characters are vigorous, striding out to or among them at the drop of an insult.
The heroine, Wally of the title, is an odd creation, a tomboy into outdoor exploits, but also very passionate and choosy about men. Catalani clearly didn’t want to do the slice-of-life stuff that was all the rage, but he didn’t manage to create a plausible alternative to it. His heroine is less heroic than foolhardy. And unfortunately OHP didn’t have a singer to rise to the limited opportunities that are offered.