Twenty years ago the idea of opera in a park in west London still raised eyebrows. Now it has become a regular fixture alongside other summer opera festivals, such as Glyndebourne, and nothing surprises – not even bear-hunting, the stealing of a baby vulture, several attempted murders and an avalanche in the middle of July.
All these feature in Catalani’s bizarre and long-neglected La Wally. Opera Holland Park has made a speciality of rediscovering the operas of the Italian verismo and its years of experience in turning potboilers by composers such as Cilea, Zandonai and Montemezzi into exciting evenings at the theatre must be counted valuable preparation for this latest escapade.
Rarely has such a preposterously impassioned drama depended on such a minuscule dramatic premise. The entire story of tragic Wally and her loved one, Hagenbach, hangs on the single moment when he may (or may not) have genuinely meant to kiss her at the Corpus Domini party. Director Martin Lloyd-Evans plays this nonsense for all it is worth. The violent undercurrents of life in the Tyrol frequently erupt to the surface and he choreographs the crowd scenes very effectively.
The avalanche is created by a huge white sheet, that is lifted up on pulleys, a bit naff really. But, as other companies never stage La Wally, it is hard to know how it might be done better.
The crux of the opera lies in the tortured relationship – well played here – between Wally and the man she loves to hate, Gellner. Gweneth-Ann Jeffers pumped out impressive, verismo-style singing as the tomboy who longs to be kissed by the tenor, though Wally’s lyrical passages suit her less well. Stephen Gadd’s strong, firm baritone voice sounded made for Gellner.
The third role in this typical operatic love triangle is the tenor Hagenbach, whom Wally wants either to marry or to murder (she can never make up her mind), but the strident fast vibrato of Adrian Dwyer rather limited his appeal. Alinka Kozari and Stephen Richardson did well in supporting roles and the conductor, Peter Robinson, gave the City of London Sinfonia its head in Catalani’s fitfully inspiring music. There are some worthwhile moments here before the avalanche deluges singers, stage and all.