OPER.A.20.21. 2019 Review: La Wally
Charlotte-Anne Shipley Gives A Timeless Performance Of Title Role In Intriguing ProductionBy Alan Neilson
(Photo: Alessia Santambrogio)
Alfredo Catalani died prematurely of tuberculosis, at the age of 39, having completed five operas. Today he is really only remembered for one of them, namely “La Wally” and even this receives only an occasional performance, and is known primarily for its famous aria “Ebben.. ne andrò lontana” and the fact one of its main characters, Hagenbach, is killed by an avalanche.
Strange as it may now seem, but during his lifetime, Catalani, was considered to be Verdi’s likely successor. Obviously, his early death put pay to that, and his contemporary, Puccini, took on the mantle. Interestingly, both composers were born in the small Tuscan town of Lucca, only four years apart.
Forces Of Nature
As part of Bolzano and Trento’s OPER.A.20.21’s “Forces of Nature” season it was decided to include a production of Catalani’s opera. It is not simply the dangerous mountain landscape and its deadly avalanches which the director, Nicola Raab, sees as the primary natural force, but the extreme emotional disposition of Wally herself.
Rejecting the male perspective of a romanticized Wally, created by Catalani and his librettist Illica, Raab went back to the original source of the story, Wilhelmine von Hillern’s book, “Die Geier Wally,” in which Wally is portrayed from a female perspective, as a strong-willed, autonomous character, determined to follow her own pathway in life, in a society which demands that she conform. It is, therefore, an interpretation which embraces a universal truth; a person must fight to establish their individuality against the countervailing pressures of society. Many give in and submit, Wally does not.
The mountainous landscape in which the opera is set, therefore, acts as a metaphor for the dominating power of society, something that is difficult to shape through the lone actions of an individual. The mountains are dangerous and can kill. Confronting their power requires an inner force. Thus, it is Wally, as a force of nature in her own right, who is pitted head on, against the mountain’s (or society’s) omnipotent force. It is a conflict which will not end happily!
Deadening the Mood
Raab also decided to downplay any local color, and to that end the chorus were not dressed in the usual pastoral peasant costumes, but in austere, dark almost puritanical attire, and their movement was restricted. The opening scene, for example, in which the village celebrates, is presented as a joyless affair, the chorus siting on benches, grim-faced and implacable like the mountains which surround them. The costume designer, Julia Muer, added a little more variation for the principal singers in order to highlight their characters; Hagenbach, for example, was slightly more flamboyant in his dress, and Wally had a few colours added to her clothing, but nothing excessive.
Mirella Weingarten responsible for the scenography opted for an abstract presentation. There were no mountains, no trees, nor running streams, in fact nothing at all to remind one of the natural world. Instead, the scenery consisted of only two large monolithic blocks, which could be moved slowly by many people, to represent cliff faces, ravines and precipices.
Moreover they could be used to pressure Wally into oppressive spaces, forcing her into places she did not want to go. Aided by the dark lighting designs of Clifton Taylor, the set was claustrophobic and menacing.
Dominating the Proceedings
The opera is dominated by the character of Wally, and the English soprano, Charlotte-Anne Shipley had the necessary presence and ability to carry the role. Her initial entrance immediately commanded attention, which she followed up with an expressive and emotionally intense performance, which was notable for its consistency. She has a strong versatile voice, underpinned by excellent control, with a rich, colorful palette, which she used intelligently in developing her character.
The musical highpoint of the opera, if not the dramatic centerpiece, is “Ebben, ne andrò lontano” in which Wally sings a plaintive goodbye to her home and village. Shipley, balancing beauty and expressivity, produced a compelling reading in which she gave voice to her melancholia, gracefully caressing the long rising lines. Her voice floated gently above the orchestra, which she then twisted to reflect her inner determination. To meet the forthcoming challenge, her voice took on a more strident tone and inflected the vocal line with carefully placed accents and dynamic purpose, highlighting her underlying tensions. Apart from an occasional hardness around the edges, it was an impressive rendition. Yet, there was much more to admire in Shipley’s singing and impassioned acting, which gave form to the epithet, describing Wally as a force of nature.
Inconsistent Inner Life
Ferdinand von Bothmer possesses a high-lying, sweet sounding tenor, which on paper is a good fit for the role of Hagenbach. However, due the nature of the production, in which he is required to give voice to the character’s inner-tensions to heighten and accentuate his passions, his essaying of the role was somewhat inconsistent as it exposed certain limitations in the upper register. Up there, the voice thinned a little too readily and lost its force and agility as he pushed the voice upwards, compromising the beauty of the sound and characterization in the process. This was made all the more noticeable by having to complement Shipley’s emotionally powerful performance.
But there was still much to admire in Bothmer’s singing; his middle register was strong with a pleasing timbre, and in such passages his singing was expressive and engaging. Also in the upper register, when singing more freely, without focusing on his inner turmoil, he was able to maintain the voice’s quality, and spin out lines of beauty. A less psychologically intense production would no doubt have been more suitable for his voice.
Rejected But Sturdy
The bass-baritone, Ashley David Prewett, in the role of Wally’s rejected suitor, Gellner, made an excellent impression. His voice is firm, powerful with a beautiful timbre, which he employed with surety, crafting phrases which brought an emotional depth to his character. It was an expressive and well-sung performance. Towards the end of the first act, Gellner confronts Wally about his feelings for her in the aria, “T’amo ben io!” Prewett brilliantly capturing his emotional state in an impassioned lyrical outpouring of love, which was made all the more powerful by Shipley’s venomous rejection.
Walter, a balladeer and loyal friend of Wally, was played by the soprano, Francesca Sorteni. Raab decided to play with the character’s sexuality, having him sit with the women in the opening chorus, but later having him make a pass at Wally. While the reasoning behind this was clear, it did not add anything to the strength of the presentation. Sorteni, however, put in a commendable performance, her singing was engaging and attractive. She possesses a bright, silvery soprano, with a high degree of agility. Her voice climbed easily, and her coloratura had a fresh breezy quality.
Alessandro Guerzoni’s portrayal of Stromminger did not manage to convince, his singing lacked the necessary emotional force to bring the character fully to life. The voice had a pleasing tone, but was not sufficiently robust to endow the character with the necessary authority, subtlety or nuance.
In the relatively small role of Hagenbach’s fiancee, Afra, was the mezzo-soprano, Francesca Sartorato, who gave an engaging presentation. She gave a solid vocal performance, in which the beauty and colouring of her voice impressed.
The bass, Enrico Marchesini, put in a colorful performance as a soldier, who had certain gender issues judging by his costume, which was a mix of the masculine military and feminine attire. He has a good stage presence, and sang with a bit of swagger, consistent with the part. His voice is agile, and he displayed good technique in characterising the role.
Commitment & Excitement
The conductor, Arvo Volmer, produced a committed performance from the Orchestra Haydn di Bolzano e Trento from which he elicited a compelling reading of the score, amplifying its textural qualities, highlighting its beautiful coloring and exploiting its sweeping melodies. The ebb and flow of the music was brilliantly crafted, Volmer gently nurturing the rising power of the orchestra, allowing it to explode with force, and then die away. The musical balance was always carefully monitored, allowing individual sections to shine and the singers to be clearly heard.
The Ensemble Vocale Continuum, under the direction of the Chorus master, Luigi Azzolini, put in an energetic and animated performance, which although musically at odds with their severe disposition, was no less effective.
Overall, this was a successful production of Catalani’s masterpiece, one in which the musical side under the direction Volmer really shone, and in which Shipley gave an impressive performance in the title role.
Raab’s presentation may also be considered to have been a success, although her brutal abstract presentation, in which all sense of color and fun were drained, at least visually, from the work may have alienated those members of the audience who prefer a more traditional staging. Any loss, however, was more than compensated for by the emotional intensity and psychological insights that she brought to the work.