Notes and Editorial Reviews
Fausto Cleva, cond; Renata Tebaldi (
); Mario del Monaco (
); Piero Cappuccilli (
); Turin Lyric Ch; Natl Monte Carlo Op O
DECCA 000994402 (2 CDs: 124:30
Text and Translation)
The reissue of this 1969 recording by Decca of Alfredo Catalani’s
led me to think about how badly this opera has been treated on recordings. Unquestionably this set has the most “important” cast to record the opera—but the problem with it is that by 1969 Renata Tebaldi’s voice was no longer the beautifully pure instrument it had been, particularly on top. And Mario del Monaco was even more past his best years, his voice turning hard-edged and tinny. Even though he tries to sing sensitively at times on this set, the strain is evident, and what was once a truly great dramatic tenor instrument is a shadow of itself. Only Piero Cappuccilli’s Gellner is a portrayal of the first class. Still, there is no other recording, commercial or off the air, that I can recommend as a preferable alternative.
Why should this matter? After all, isn’t
one of those second-rate verismo operas that don’t deserve much respect anyhow? Well, my answer is resoundingly “no.” Arturo Toscanini thought enough of this opera to name one of his daughters Wally (some think that his other two children, Wanda and Walter, were given names that began with “Wa” for the same reason)—and Toscanini was a tough judge of music. Catalani flourished around the same time as Cilea and Giordano, and that whole period is due for a revision of critical opinion.
has survived because of the great tenor part, and
because of the great soprano part and some wonderful duet writing. And both have survived despite considerable snickering from critics who enjoy showing their intellectual superiority—music of such direct emotional appeal is clearly seen as being of insufficient cerebral interest.
is different—yes, it has one star aria (“Ebben? Ne andrò lontana”—made famous in the movie
), but the opera is more of an ensemble piece, more conversational for much of its duration. Often, in fact, the real melodic interest is in the orchestra—and it is for its orchestral writing that
deserves greater attention, I believe. Catalani stands above his contemporaries in the subtlety and skill with which he writes for orchestra. It is true that the plot is a silly one, even by operatic standards. The final blow is when both lovers are killed by an avalanche in the Swiss Alps (actually, Hagenbach is killed, and Wally throws herself over the precipice), and there are many improbabilities even prior to that point. But the music is touching and memorable, and deserves at least one truly satisfying recording.
The finest performance preserved on disc is a 1960 Rome Opera staging with Tebaldi in her prime years, and the under-valued Giacinto Prandelli as Hagenbach. The rest of the cast is only adequate, and Arturo Basile conducts with a bit more energy and incisiveness than Fausto Cleva does for Decca. Cleva was, in his day, a good and idiomatic conductor, but he was almost 70 by 1969 (and was to die two years later). But the problem with that 1960 Rome opera performance is the dry monaural sound isn’t very satisfying and doesn’t convey the orchestral richness of the opera. I have it on Opera d’Oro (1249), and still enjoy it because of the excellent singing—but the constricted sound definitely makes this a good second recording of the opera, not an only one.
Catalani’s orchestral writing is best demonstrated in the 1989 Munich Radio performance brilliantly led by Pinchas Steinberg. This is the way this opera should be conducted and played—the music comes alive and we begin to understand Catalani’s qualities. Unfortunately, two of the three major roles are inadequately sung, starting with Eva Marton’s Wally. Frequently shrill, lacking in a feel for the gentle shape of Catalani’s vocal writing, and occasionally out of tune, this is one of Marton’s least satisfying recordings. When I first heard the recording, I was more captivated by it because of Steinberg’s brilliant conducting—truly in another world from Basile and Cleva—and because Marton’s basic instrument is right for this music. But each time I listen to it I find Marton’s performance more of an obstacle to enjoyment. And Alan Titus’s hooty baritone is also an impediment to pleasure. Only Francisco Araiza can be said to be successful in his portrayal of the unfortunate Hagenbach (RCA 69073).
There are a few other “private release” performances floating around. One with Magda Olivero from Bologna is marred by wretched sound and poor casting around her. Another, beautifully led by Giulini and with the young Tebaldi from 1953 at La Scala, might be a clear winner if La Scala ever starts releasing official copies from their archives, but the versions on Legato and on Istituto Discografico Italiano are dreadfully compressed, limited in frequency response at both ends, and distorted. A 1968 American Opera Society in-house recording has circulated also, with Tebaldi and Bergonzi and Cleva—again, at least my copy is marred by uneven sound and even some dropout.
So where does that leave us? In writing this review, I listened to all of the above, and concluded that despite the vocal shortcomings of Tebaldi and (particularly) del Monaco, and the phlegmatic conducting of Cleva, this remains the recommendable
Tebaldi may strain for high notes, and she may be a bit too gentle and feminine for Catalani’s spunky heroine, but the fact is that her voice has the perfect timbre for this music, and she has a feel for the music’s shape duplicated by no other singer. She clearly loved the role (which is why she appears in a number of the “pirate” sets), and provides much pleasure despite the problems. Del Monaco represents a more serious shortcoming. Though he tries to hold himself back, he would have been a better Hagenbach 10 years earlier. Here, too much of his singing borders on shouting. It is a shame that Decca didn’t cast Bergonzi in this recording—in 1969 he would have been a triumph. However, until a better recording comes along, and
deserves better, I think this is the first choice. Those who really love the opera should explore Pinchas Steinberg’s for the orchestral part, and the earlier Tebaldi/Prandelli set from Rome on Opera d’Oro as supplements. This Decca Originals reissue gives us no notes, a brief synopsis, and complete Italian-English text. The 1969 sound remains as it always was—first-rate.
FANFARE: Henry Fogel
Works on This Recording
La Wally by Alfredo Catalani
Piero Cappuccilli (Baritone),
Justino Diaz (Bass),
Lydia Marimpietri (Soprano),
Alfredo Mariotti (Bass),
Renata Tebaldi (Soprano),
Mario Del Monaco (Tenor)
Monte Carlo Opera Orchestra,
Turin Lyric Chorus
Written: 1892; Italy
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