A Triumph in Transition: Catalani's 'La Wally'

In Catalani's masterpiece, a link from Verdi, to Wagner, to PucciniCatalani's La Wally

When Puccini composed La Boheme -- "The Bohemians" -- he was writing about more than just a handful of scruffy artists in an attic apartment. He was also exploring a sort of artistic ethos then influential in France -- a movement which also had a fascinating counterpart in Italy.

The Italian version of the artists known as Bohemians in France were called the Scapigliatura, a term derived from a word meaning "the disheveled ones." Like the proverbial "struggling young artists" depicted in Puccini's opera, the Scapigliatura were progressives who resisted, and even resented, the status quo.

They promoted the intermingling of the arts -- painting, literature, poetry and music -- and they chafed at traditional, Italian artistic conventions. As a result, they had a rebellious affinity, at least for a time, for the works of Richard Wagner, and sometimes even scoffed at the musical world of Verdi, thinking it old-fashioned.

The Scapigliatura also leaned towards direct, highly-realistic forms of artistic expression -- a preference that had a profound influence on Italian opera, helping to inspire the verismo style we so often associate with Puccini. And while there were few if any successful operas written by "official" members of the Scapigliatura, there was one by a composer who clearly sympathized with the movement: La Wally, by Alfredo Catalani.

Catalani was just 39 when he died in 1893, and he wrote only five operas. Yet his music does give us a fascinating look at the complicated artistic world in which he worked. While Italian opera was moving from the established world of Verdi to the intense realism of Puccini, it was also evolving away from the "set-piece" form of opera, that went all the way back to Baroque opera seriaLa Wallyreflects those tendencies both in its structure, and its musical style.

La Wally was Catalani's final opera, and was first performed at La Scala, in Milan, early in 1892. That premiere was a success, but Catalani's fee for the opera was dependent on the number of future stagings, and after the premiere the opera was seldom performed. So for Catalani the opera never really paid off, and he died the following year.

An interesting side note to Catalani's brief career is that while he wrote less than a half-dozen operas, he did work with two of the most distinguished librettists of his time. The libretto for La Wally was written by Luigi Illica, who also worked with Puccini on La Boheme, Tosca and Madame Butterfly. Catalain's first opera, La falce, used a libretto by Arrigo Boito, who later collaborated with Verdi on Otello and Falstaff. And as it happens, Boito was perhaps the most prominent member of Italy's Scapigliatura movement.

Also, while you may think you haven't heard La Wally before, you most likely have heard at least part of it. The title character's beautiful Act One aria Ebben? Ne andrò lontana has one of the most familiar, and frequently-heard melodies in all of opera. And the aria also played a leading role in a well-known movie -- the 1981 film Diva -- which helped make a star of American soprano Wilhelminia Fernandez.

On World of Opera, host Lisa Simeone brings us Catalani's La Wally from Switzerland's Grand Theater of Geneva. The production features soprano Barbara Frittoli in the title role, with conductor Evelino Pidò leading the Suisse Romande Orchestra.