La Wally, Opera Holland Park, London
Prom 22, Royal Albert Hall, London
Prom 23, Royal Albert Hall, London
Prom 29, Royal Albert, London
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Sunday 07 August 2011
The little walled Tuscan city of Lucca is famous as the birthplace of Puccini, and for its Romanesque cathedral, at which Puccini's father was organist. But it is less well known as the birthplace of Alfredo Catalani, Puccini's senior by four years, student under Puccini's uncle at the local conservatoire, and, similarly, a composer of operas. And yet, while Puccini soared and soars still, Catalani is virtually unknown, but for the aria that ends Act One of La Wally, "Ebbene, ne andro' lontana".
Perhaps his mistake was to go north. Puccini sunned himself on the shores of the Lago di Massaciuccoli, bedding women, shooting ducks; Catalani made for the mountains, so that while Puccini's operas are hanging baskets tumbling with colour, La Wally (pronounced "valley") is a low, rough alpine, stunted and unfulfilling. Opera Holland Park, tireless in its championing of neglected works alongside repertory hits, attempts to put some Miracle-Gro on this flawed specimen. The result is a curious hybrid.
Transported inexplicably from the 19th century to the late 1940s, La Wally tells the story of a mountain girl so agile and brave that she alone dared to take a baby vulture from its precipitous nest. Maybe we are to understand that the menfolk have been so brutalised by the recent war that it is OK for her father to stamp on the adult Wally's head while others stand by, but it is a distasteful spectacle and makes a nonsense of characterisation. How can we believe that Gellner (Stephen Gadd) truly loves her when he does not intervene, or warm to the humiliating Hagenbach (Adrian Dwyer), even though both sing with increasing power?
Gweneth-Ann Jeffers, implausibly cast as Wally, looks uncomfortable but has glorious moments. Yet she is cruelly served by the overloud orchestra under Peter Robinson, lovely as it is in the entr'actes, and by a booby-trap snow-on-a-rope set and unfortunate costume by designer Jamie Vartan.
With the chorus of the Mariinsky Theatre for Prom 22 came the promise of subterranean voices singing in a Russian so loaded with meaning that it would chill the heart. In the event, their role in an all-Rachmaninov programme, the first of two concerts last week given by the BBC Philharmonic under Gianandrea Noseda, was a bit of a let-down. Try as one might to be harrowed and stirred, from the first green tufts pushing through "Spring" to the final lament of The Bells, it was hard not to be disappointed by the singing, other than from tenor and bass soloists Misha Didyk and Alexei Tanovitski. Svetla Vassileva's Vocalise was plain unpleasant, overblown and insensitive to the wordless vocal line that should be floated weightlessly over the orchestral underpinning. The Philharmonic played with muscle and fielded a luxurious woodwind section, but Noseda did little to help the too-small 60-strong Mariinsky hold their own.
The night after, relieved of their Russian visitors, the Philharmonic strode into action at Prom 23 with Beethoven's Symphony No 4, Noseda unwrapping its secrets and sometimes spinning the sound so fine that it felt as though the music were only one molecule thick. Prommers' favourite Stephen Hough was the soloist in Saint-Saëns' Fifth Piano Concerto, responding to its nickname The Egyptian by taking his bow in a crimson fez. His reading of the exploratory and inventive piano part was as liquid as the Nile – now a majestic barge, now a skittish felucca, tacking in and out of the orchestra. Dancing through its strange tonalities, ragtime finale and beaming conclusion, Hough was rewarded with a yelp of delight from the arena. But, like the maverick uncle who overexcites the children with tales of brigands at bedtime, he characteristically calmed us all down with a poem, his own arrangement of Massenet's Crépuscule.
In another age, Liszt could have written for the movies – shivering strings, blistering brass and intimidating timpani summon up Hell in his Dante Symphony, which commandeers the obligatory harps and flutes to convey love and/or heaven. There is even a celestial choir, the women's voices of the CBSO ringing from the top tier of the Albert Hall as paradise is glimpsed from purgatory, soprano soloist Julie Doyle casting a line of pure silk around the dome.
It's a giant step from "Mambo!" to Mahler, but the Simon Bolivar Symphony Orchestra, back at the Royal Albert Hall for Prom 29, four years since its Proms and UK debut, thinks big. The youth orchestra has come of age, its players the product of El Sistema, the Venezuelan project that harnesses music to change young lives, and it has no intention of paddling in the shallows. In deep with Mahler's Resurrection Symphony No 2, its colossal forces (14 double basses!) can be thick around the edges. But under home-grown conductor Gustavo Dudamel, guesting from his new job in Sweden, the orchestra only occasionally reveals its degree of youth – average age now 24 – and if the dance sections have more colour than the long passages of introspection, better to be young and cheerful than young and gloomy. The National Youth Choir of Great Britain and soloists Miah Persson and Anna Larsson pitched in for the monumental finale, but it's the Venezuelans who steal the show, every time.
'La Wally' (0300 999 1000) to 12 Aug; BBC Proms (0845 401 5034) to 10 Sep
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