La Wally, Opera Holland Park, London
Prom 22, Royal Albert Hall, London
Prom 23, Royal Albert Hall, London
Prom 29, Royal Albert, London

A surefooted heroine should appeal to a modern audience, but this Italian reality show falls flat

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

Next week

Claudia Pritchard stays up for Steve Reich's late-night Prom

Arts and Entertainment
The frill of it all: Hattie Morahan in 'The Changeling'

Arts and Entertainment
Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny may reunite for The X Files

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Clarkson, left, and Richard Hammond upset the locals in South America
A young woman punched a police officer after attending a gig by US rapper Snoop Dogg
Arts and Entertainment
Reese Witherspoon starring in 'Wild'

It's hard not to warm to Reese Witherspoon's heroismfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Word up: Robbie Coltrane as dictionary guru Doctor Johnson in the classic sitcom Blackadder the Third

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Hacked off: Maisie Williams in ‘Cyberbully’

Maisie Williams single-handedly rises to the challenge

Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything and Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game are both nominated at the Bafta Film Awards
Arts and Entertainment

Academy criticised after no non-white actors nominated

Arts and Entertainment
Damian Lewis shooting a scene as Henry VIII in Wolf Hall

Arts and Entertainment
A history of violence: ‘Angry, White and Proud’ looked at the rise of far-right groups


An expose of hooliganism masquerading as an ideological battle

Arts and Entertainment


Lee Hadwin can't draw when he's awake, but by night he's an artist

Arts and Entertainment


Arts and Entertainment
Michael Keaton in the 1998 Beetlejuice original


Arts and Entertainment


Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman and David Tennant star in 'Broadchurch'


Arts and Entertainment
Michael Kitchen plays Christopher Foyle in ITV's 'Foyle's War'

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Downton Abbey star Joanne Froggatt will be starring in Dominic Savage's new BBC drama The Secrets

Arts and Entertainment
Vividly drawn: Timothy Spall in Mike Leigh’s ‘Mr Turner’
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Woman who was sent to three Nazi death camps describes how she escaped the gas chamber

    Auschwitz liberation 70th anniversary

    Woman sent to three Nazi death camps describes surviving gas chamber
    DSK, Dodo the Pimp, and the Carlton Hotel

    The inside track on France's trial of the year

    Dominique Strauss-Kahn, Dodo the Pimp, and the Carlton Hotel:
    As provocative now as they ever were

    Sarah Kane season

    Why her plays are as provocative now as when they were written
    Murder of Japanese hostage has grim echoes of a killing in Iraq 11 years ago

    Murder of Japanese hostage has grim echoes of another killing

    Japanese mood was against what was seen as irresponsible trips to a vicious war zone
    Syria crisis: Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more refugees as one young mother tells of torture by Assad regime

    Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more Syrian refugees

    One young mother tells of torture by Assad regime
    The enemy within: People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back – with promising results

    The enemy within

    People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back
    'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

    'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

    Survivors of the Nazi concentration camp remember its horror, 70 years on
    Autumn/winter menswear 2015: The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore

    Autumn/winter menswear 2015

    The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore
    'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

    'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

    Army general planning to come out
    Iraq invasion 2003: The bloody warnings six wise men gave to Tony Blair as he prepared to launch poorly planned campaign

    What the six wise men told Tony Blair

    Months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, experts sought to warn the PM about his plans. Here, four of them recall that day
    25 years of The Independent on Sunday: The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century

    25 years of The Independent on Sunday

    The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century
    Homeless Veterans appeal: 'Really caring is a dangerous emotion in this kind of work'

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    As head of The Soldiers' Charity, Martin Rutledge has to temper compassion with realism. He tells Chris Green how his Army career prepared him
    Wu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own the only copies of their latest albums

    Smash hit go under the hammer

    It's nice to pick up a new record once in a while, but the purchasers of two latest releases can go a step further - by buying the only copy
    Geeks who rocked the world: Documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry

    The geeks who rocked the world

    A new documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry
    Belle & Sebastian interview: Stuart Murdoch reveals how the band is taking a new direction

    Belle & Sebastian is taking a new direction

    Twenty years ago, Belle & Sebastian was a fey indie band from Glasgow. It still is – except today, as prime mover Stuart Murdoch admits, it has a global cult following, from Hollywood to South Korea