Alfredo Catalani was the great operatic hope which never materialised. A contemporary and rival of Puccini, he was regarded for a while as the natural successor to Verdi as the leader of Italian opera, but two things prevented that from happening. One was his early death from consumption at the age of thirty-nine with only a handful of operas to his name, and the other was the later fairly dismissive comments made about him by one of Puccini’s biographers, comments which have led to a whole generation believing that Catalani’s operas make poor comparisons with Puccini’s. Wrong. Catalani’s operas are thoughtful, entirely his own style, and always exciting. La Wally is the finest of them – and it is one of the few operas which involves an avalanche, which is one reason for keeping it in the popular repertoire. The other reason is its wonderful music. There are several recordings available, so you can judge it for yourself.
Opera in four acts.
Libretto by Luigi Illica, based on the novel Die Geier-Wally by Wilhelmine von Hillern, which had been published in an Italian translation in the Milanese magazine La perseveranza.
First performed at La Scala, Milan on 20 January 1892.
In the Alpine village of Hochstoff, celebrations are under way for the seventieth birthday of a wealthy landowner named Stromminger, including a shooting competition; Stromminger’s bailiff Vincenzo Gellner brings down the target in his master’s honour. After congratulating Gellner, Stromminger tells him that he has heard of a man in the nearby village of Sölden who claims to be a great hunter and who is said to scorn such feats of marksmanship as being too easy. Gellner replies glumly that he has heard of this man too, and that his name is Giuseppe Hagenbach. Stromminger remembers Hagenbach’s father, and adds that he too was a conceited braggart. As Stromminger toasts Gellner’s health, a young harpist and ballad-singer named Walter arrives in search of Wally, Stromminger’s wild and unpredictable daughter. He tells Stromminger that he and Wally often sing together and, despite Stromminger’s mocking comments, he launches into a yodelling song, the Song of the Edelweiss, which earns even Stromminger’s praise and turns out to have been composed by the old man’s daughter herself. Stromminger is surprised to learn about this, but Gellner comments under his breath that he knows it, but that Wally’s heart is as cold as snow as far as he is concerned.
The sound of hunting horns is heard: it is huntsmen from Sölden returning from the chase, led by Giuseppe Hagenbach who is pretty pleased with himself for killing a bear single-handed. He revels in recounting his encounter with the bear to the villagers, until Stromminger has had enough of Hagenbach’s boasting and interrupts the bear saga to say that Hagenbach needn’t think that bears were provided expressly for him to kill: Stromminger himself has achieved similar feats, but with less bragging. He comments that he once had occasion to knock Hagenbach’s father flat, and when Hagenbach accuses him of lying, a fight starts. Hagenbach has just knocked Stromminger down, when suddenly, Wally bursts in, her hair wild and entwined with edelweiss and her arms bare. She grabs Hagenbach by the shoulders and he staggers back. Wally demands to know who has dared to lift a finger against her father, and Hagenbach replies that it was Stromminger who started the fight. Wally’s anger subsides as she recognises Hagenbach and she just stands, looking at him with great tenderness, while he too gazes at her. Stromminger gets to his feet, accuses Hagenbach of being drunk and orders the huntsmen from Sölden to leave Hochstoff immediately. The villagers, upset by what they have seen, disperse to their various homes. Wally watches Hagenbach leave and then enters her father’s house, leaving her father and Gellner alone.
Stromminger explains to Gellner that he cannot stand Hagenbach, and Gellner starts to reply that it isn’t much use for a father to loath someone when his children …, and then he breaks off, realising that he has said too much. Stromminger, realizing what was left unsaid, refuses to accept that his daughter is in love with Hagenbach, but in his anger, he realizes that Gellner is in love with her too. Angrily, he calls for Wally, and when she comes, he tells her that Gellner loves her and that she will be his wife within the month. After dropping this bombshell, he goes into the house. Left alone with Gellner, Wally asks him if this is his idea and he replies that Stromminger read what was in his heart. Wally tells him that he is a good man, but that he must give up any idea of marrying her because she does not love him. Gellner protests that he loves her passionately and begs her to change her mind. She rejects him coldly. Stromminger now returns, expecting obedience from his daughter, but she tells him that she will never marry Gellner. In a blind fury, Stromminger tells her unless she agrees to obey him before the church bell rings for evening worship, she will never be welcome in his house again. Wally sings a sad farewell to her childhood home and decides to go and live far away in the mountains. Villagers pass by on their way to the evening service and ask her what has happened; she tells them about her father’s orders that she must marry Gellner and although some of them offer to give her a bed for the night so that she can leave with the rising sun, Wally is determined to leave immediately. The loyal Walter says that he will go with her, and that they will make a living singing together. To the sound of the singing of the Ave Maria from the church, the two of them set off for the mountains.
One year later. In the village of Sölden it is the Feast of Corpus Christi and the village square is decorated with flowers and coloured streamers and crowded with villagers dressed for the holiday. An old soldier sits outside the Eagle Inn enjoying a quiet drink. Gellner is there, but much changed; he is morose and silent. Young girls flirt with the village boys, who comment that even if they did feel like getting married, they would not choose any of these fickle girls. They mock a group of older women who pass through the square on their way to the church. The old soldier comments that he has seen the same group of girls doing the rounds of all the villages. The bell is ringing for the morning service and the girls too prepare themselves for it. Walter arrives, wearing his best clothes and eying up the girls, and the soldier pulls his leg about looking so smart and making eyes at even the married women. The soldiers says that he has just seen Walter’s mistress, the one who bought him his fine clothes. Walter indignantly replies that no woman is his mistress, and that Wally is only his friend. Hagenbach turns up too, and sits at another table outside the inn where he is served by the pretty landlady Afra, who clearly fancies him. The village lads ask whether Wally will be coming, and the soldier explains that since Stromminger died, Wally has become very wealthy – and is a good catch for any man. Gellner gloomily comments that she will come for Hagenbach’s sake, but Hagenbach observes that he wouldn’t want a wife like her because she is made not for love but for hate. Afra tells him that you mustn’t trifle with love, because the heart cannot resist its force. In an ensemble, Walter says that Wally just wants to enjoy her life, Hagenbach claims to be able to resist love’s wiles and the soldier and the village boys laugh together.
Wally’s arrival silences them all. She is finely dressed and as Hagenbach refuses to turn to look at her, Afra tells him how lovely Wally is, with her regal demeanour and the string of pearls around her neck. Walter and Wally greet one another and Afra brings Wally a glass of wine, which Wally puts down untouched. The boys jostle around, all asking Wally to dance with them, and she replies that she will dance with anyone just for the sheer enjoyment of dancing. The soldier slyly asks if she will join in the kissing dance too, but Wally replies that she knows that the kissing dance is a favourite in the village, but that no-one will steal a kiss from her as easily as that. She sings that she has been kissed only by the sun and the breeze, the pearly dew and the stars in the night sky, the meadow flowers, the little birds and the white snow – these are immortal kisses and no man could steal such a precious possession. But, asks the old soldier, suppose someone did? Ah, replies Wally, in that case, he would be mine! She takes Walter’s arm and moves away, glancing back at Hagenbach with a look of great intensity. The soldier urges the young men to try their luck with Wally but the sound of the organ from the church reminds them that the mass is about to start. Hagenbach goes towards the church, deeply affected by the look that Wally gave him as women’s voices from the church sing, ‘Holy Mary, pray for us’.
Seizing his opportunity, Gellner interrupts Wally and Walter as they are going towards the church. Wally, annoyed by this, sends Walter on ahead and turns on Gellner. She reminds him curtly that he is the only one of the estate workers who has not been to see her since her father died. Gellner replies that he did not dare to and she rounds on him, saying that she hasn’t forgotten that he was responsible for her being thrown out of her own home; contemptuously, she throws a purse of money at him and tells him to go. Gellner protests that he loves her and wants her love not her money. She mocks him, telling him of a song that her grandmother used to sing about there being no greater pleasure than to hate the man who has given you his heart. Gellner pathetically asks her not to laugh at him and asks her why she is now so tarty when she used to be so shy. When she denies this, Gellner reminds her that her father promised her to him because he had told her father that she was in love with Hagenbach; he tells her that he loves her more passionately than ever and speaks of his agonising sufferings. When Wally tells him that he is right and that she does love Hagenbach, he curses her and then tells her that Hagenbach will soon be married – but to Afra. Wally recalls how she has seen them whispering together, their heads almost touching, and although she is upset by Gellner’s jibe and his sarcastic repetition of her grandmother’s song about mocked lovers, she consoles herself with the thought that all is not yet lost, and that no-one can know what the future may hold. As the village people emerge from the church, Wally grabs the glass which Afra had brought her earlier and flings it to the ground, screaming that only Afra’s hangers-on would drink such watery bilge. Afra bursts into tears and Wally announces that she knows how to cure a tart’s tears and tosses a handful of gold coins at Afra.
Hagenbach has witnessed all this; he calms Afra down, retrieves the coins and throws them to the village band, saying that the rich mistress of Hochstoff is paying them and telling them to play the liveliest dance they know. Wally tells herself that Gellner’s jibe was true. The village lads want Hagenbach to dance with them, but before he does, he lays a wager, betting ten golden florins that he will get a kiss from Wally. As he says this, he removes the eagle’s feather from his hat and replaces it upside-down, a local sign that a vow is worthless and need not be honoured; Gellner sees this and warns Wally to take care. Hagenbach now invites Wally to dance with him and she accepts.
As the dancers and the villagers sing excitedly, the battle for a kiss is in full swing, and when a kiss is won, there is much cheering – even Walter succeeds in getting one from his partner. Wally and Hagenbach dance together and become so engrossed with one another’s barely disguised declarations of love that they do not realise that they have become the centre of attention. Hagenbach, surprised by the strength of his emotions, suddenly wants to stop dancing, but Wally flirtily persuades him to carry on. As the old soldier advises everyone to watch carefully because the crucial moment is coming, Hagenbach begins to pour out his heart and, this time, it is Wally who draws back, telling the bewildered Hagenbach that he cannot love her because he is promised to someone else. Hagenbach accuses Wally of making fun of him, which she denies, telling him that she loves him. He holds her close and with a cry of abandoned bliss from Wally, they kiss. Cheers and cries of delight from the crowd are accompanied by shouts that Afra has been avenged.
As Wally stares at him in total incomprehension, the young men drag Hagenbach off to celebrate the winning of his wager, and he joins them, ignoring Wally completely. In response to Gellner’s comment that she should have listened to his warning, Wally, in a cold fury, asks Gellner if he still wants her. He replies, ‘Always!’ and she tells him coldly that she wants Hagenbach dead.
After an orchestral interlude, the curtain rises on the village of Hochstoff later the same evening. A path on the left leads to a bridge overs the ravine at the bottom of which the river Ache flows, and from the bridge it leads up into the mountains. On the right is Wally’s house with her bedroom lit up.
Wally enters the house accompanied by Walter who is trying to cheer her up. She asks him if he has seen Gellner and he tells her that he hasn’t. She takes off her pearl necklace and looks at it pensively, then she sits at the table, her head on her arms.
Villagers return tired from the fair at Sölden and enter their homes; Gellner is among them. Wally is startled by the sound of the old soldier singing drunkenly to himself as he staggers past. Walter offers to stay with her but she tells him that she prefers to be alone. He leaves, and Wally kneels and tries to pray, but she cannot, so she falls onto her bed weeping.
Back in the street, Gellner emerges from his house and hurries to meet the old soldier by the bridge; even in his drunken state the old man tells Gellner that Hagenbach had remained drinking after a while and then set out along the road to Hochstoff alone, a brave man he says, since all Sölden folk already regard him as a dead man, believing that Hochstoff will want to avenge his insulting behaviour to Wally. Gellner gives the old man some money and sends him off; he then steels himself to the task he has to face. The night is pitch black and the wind has got up. Thinking that it might blow out the light above the crucifix at the bridge (which would be a bad omen) he blows it out himself and hides nearby to await his opportunity.
Wally, meanwhile, in her room is going over the events of the evening. Although she is furious with Hagenbach, she realises that she still loves him and does not want him dead at all. She decides to tell Gellner in the morning that she has changed her mind, and to warn Hagenbach, too, just to make doubly sure, although she is certain that he will have stayed the night in Sölden.
Hagenbach himself now arrives in the street, struggling to find his way in the dark. He sees that the light by the crucifix has gone out, and tells himself that his remorse for what he has done to Wally will lead him to her so that he can apologise. As he is about to cross the bridge, Gellner leaps out and pushes him over the parapet. Wally hears his shout as he falls and Gellner, who is about to run, sees the light from her window and taps on her door to report that he has done as she asked. Horrified and hardly believing what she is hearing, she grabs hold of Gellner and drags him to the edge of the ravine, telling him that their marriage altar is down there. She hears a groan and realises that Hagenbach is still alive. She releases Gellner, who takes the opportunity to run off. Wally calls for help from the villagers to rescue Hagenbach, and a crowd arrives with ropes, ladders and torches. People from Sölden, Afra among them, arrive in search of Hagenbach and when Afra realises that it is Hagenbach who has fallen she collapses. Wally tells her that Hagenbach is not dead and that Afra will have him back, and pushing her way through the gathering crowd, she goes down the ravine. The crowd pray and shout encouragement and Wally eventually reappears with the unconscious Hagenbach lashed to her back. She hands him over into Afra’s care, saying that Afra can have all her land and her house as well. She kisses the unconscious Hagenbach and bids him farewell, asking everyone there to tell him when he regains consciousness that she has given him back the kiss he took from her. The crowd praise her generosity and kindness.
A second orchestral interlude introduces a winter scene on the rugged slopes of the Murzoll, where Wally is living alone in a shepherd’s hut. Walter has struggled up the mountain through the cold to beg her to return to the village for Christmas, and he reminds her that there are likely to be avalanches, and that she is not safe there. Wally will not be persuaded, telling the disconsolate Walter that she has no reason to go back. She takes off the pearl necklace which she wore at the fair in Sölden and gives it to him, telling him to remember her former beauty and pride, then she sends him away. Alone again, she imagines that even the landscape is weeping with her. She says she wants to be accepted by the white maidens of the mountains, like the heroine of her yodelling Song of the Edelweiss, which she had sung so happily with Walter, and she hears his voice in the distance singing it now. Wally prepares to die in the cold. Suddenly, she hears Hagenbach’s voice calling her but she thinks that it is only her imagination hearing the moaning of the wind. Then she thinks that it is the voices of the mountain spirits come to claim her and she is suddenly afraid. Hagenbach reaches her, and is deeply moved by the suffering that he sees in her face. Not taking in that he is actually there, she asks why he has come and he tells her that her forgiveness of his insulting behaviour and the fact that she saved his life moved him greatly and made him realise that he loves her. He thought that he had lost her completely and has been desperately searching for her. She tells him that love does not come out of gratitude or pity, and that he loves Afra, not her. Hagenbach replies that he never loved Afra, and that the kiss which he stole from Wally at the fair was truly a kiss of love, and not just a silly challenge. He tells her that he was on his way to her that night in order to apologise and to declare his love, but God intervened and caused him to fall into the ravine as a punishment for his behaviour. Wally admits that it was not God, but a man, and that he was carrying out her wishes. She asks him if he can still love her even knowing this. Hagenbach replies that he loves her no matter what she has done, and they fall into one another’s arms, oblivious of the howling tempest that has blown up around them, and sing ecstatically of the peaceful life that they will enjoy together.
In the increasing gloom, Hagenbach moves away to try to find the path down the mountain: he calls up to Wally that the path has been wiped out by the snow and encourages her to climb down the rocks towards his voice. Suddenly, he cries out ‘The avalanche!’, and then there is a terrific roar as the avalanche sweeps past, followed by total silence. Wally was thrown to the ground by the force of the avalanche and she rises unsteadily and calls to Hagenbach, but there is only a deathly silence. Realising that he is dead, she staggers to the edge of the precipice and cries out in exaltation, ‘Behold Giuseppe’s wife! Open your arms for me, my love’ and throws herself over the edge to her death.
Related OperaStory articles can be found on
Alfredo Catalani’s life and his operas
the background to the writing of La Wally
the plots of all of Catalani’s operas
Luigi Illica’s life and his operas and librettos
other operas which include an avalanche or some other dramatic natural disaster …
… and many more aspects of exciting operas which keep you on the edge of your seat.
© Roger Witts 2009