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
Carrie Hope Fletcher
booksFirst video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books
Arts and Entertainment
Damien Hirst
artCoalition's anti-culture policy and cuts in local authority spending to blame, says academic
Arts and Entertainment
A comedy show alumni who has gone on to be a big star, Jon Stewart
tvRival television sketch shows vie for influential alumni
Arts and Entertainment
Jason goes on a special mission for the queen
tvReview: Everyone loves a CGI Cyclops and the BBC's Saturday night charmer is getting epic
Arts and Entertainment
Image has been released by the BBC
tv
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Henry Marsh said he was rather 'pleased' at the nomination
booksHenry Marsh's 'Do No Harm' takes doctors off their pedestal
Arts and Entertainment
All in a day's work: the players in the forthcoming 'Posh People: Inside Tatler'

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

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne plays Stephen Hawking in new biopic The Imitation Game

'At times I thought he was me'

film
Arts and Entertainment

books
Arts and Entertainment
One Direction go Fourth: The boys pose on the cover of their new album Four

Review: One Direction, Four

music
Arts and Entertainment
'Game of Thrones' writer George RR Martin

Review: The World of Ice and Fire

books
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Bean will play 'extraordinary hero' Inspector John Marlott in The Frankenstein Chronicles
tvHow long before he gets killed off?
Arts and Entertainment
Some like it hot: Blaise Bellville

music
Arts and Entertainment
A costume worn by model Kate Moss for the 2013 photograph

art
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Len Goodman appeared to mutter the F-word after Simon Webbe's Strictly performance

Strictly
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie T makes his long-awaited return to the London stage
musicReview: Alexandra Palace, London
Arts and Entertainment
S Club 7 back in 2001 when they also supported 'Children in Need'
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Sir Bruce Forsyth rejoins Tess Daly to host the Strictly Come Dancing Children in Need special
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Dornan plays Christian Grey getting ready for work

Film More romcom than S&M

Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game

Review: The Imitation Game

film
Arts and Entertainment
The comedian Daniel O'Reilly appeared contrite on BBC Newsnight last night

comedy
Arts and Entertainment
The American stand-up Tig Notaro, who performed topless this week

Comedy...to show her mastectomy scars

Arts and Entertainment

TVNetflix gets cryptic

Arts and Entertainment
Claudia Winkleman is having another week off Strictly to care for her daughter
TV
Arts and Entertainment
BBC Children in Need is the BBC's UK charity. Since 1980 it has raised over £600 million to change the lives of disabled children and young people in the UK

TV review A moving film showing kids too busy to enjoy their youth

Arts and Entertainment
Richard Flanagan with his winning novel

Books Not even a Man Booker prize could save Richard Flanagan from a nomination

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

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

    Mau Mau uprising: Kenyans still waiting for justice join class action over Britain's role in the emergency

    Kenyans still waiting for justice over Mau Mau uprising

    Thousands join class action over Britain's role in the emergency
    Isis in Iraq: The trauma of the last six months has overwhelmed the remaining Christians in the country

    The last Christians in Iraq

    After 2,000 years, a community will try anything – including pretending to convert to Islam – to avoid losing everything, says Patrick Cockburn
    Black Friday: Helpful discounts for Christmas shoppers, or cynical marketing by desperate retailers?

    Helpful discounts for Christmas shoppers, or cynical marketing by desperate retailers?

    Britain braced for Black Friday
    Bill Cosby's persona goes from America's dad to date-rape drugs

    From America's dad to date-rape drugs

    Stories of Bill Cosby's alleged sexual assaults may have circulated widely in Hollywood, but they came as a shock to fans, says Rupert Cornwell
    Clare Balding: 'Women's sport is kicking off at last'

    Clare Balding: 'Women's sport is kicking off at last'

    As fans flock to see England women's Wembley debut against Germany, the TV presenter on an exciting 'sea change'
    Oh come, all ye multi-faithful: The Christmas jumper is in fashion, but should you wear your religion on your sleeve?

    Oh come, all ye multi-faithful

    The Christmas jumper is in fashion, but should you wear your religion on your sleeve?
    Dr Charles Heatley: The GP off to do battle in the war against Ebola

    The GP off to do battle in the war against Ebola

    Dr Charles Heatley on joining the NHS volunteers' team bound for Sierra Leone
    Flogging vlogging: First video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books

    Flogging vlogging

    First video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books
    Saturday Night Live vs The Daily Show: US channels wage comedy star wars

    Saturday Night Live vs The Daily Show

    US channels wage comedy star wars
    When is a wine made in Piedmont not a Piemonte wine? When EU rules make Italian vineyards invisible

    When is a wine made in Piedmont not a Piemonte wine?

    When EU rules make Italian vineyards invisible
    Look what's mushrooming now! Meat-free recipes and food scandals help one growing sector

    Look what's mushrooming now!

    Meat-free recipes and food scandals help one growing sector
    Neil Findlay is more a pink shrimp than a red firebrand

    More a pink shrimp than a red firebrand

    The vilification of the potential Scottish Labour leader Neil Findlay shows how one-note politics is today, says DJ Taylor
    Bill Granger recipes: Tenderstem broccoli omelette; Fried eggs with Mexican-style tomato and chilli sauce; Pan-fried cavolo nero with soft-boiled egg

    Oeuf quake

    Bill Granger's cracking egg recipes
    Terry Venables: Wayne Rooney is roaring again and the world knows that England are back

    Terry Venables column

    Wayne Rooney is roaring again and the world knows that England are back
    Michael Calvin: Abject leadership is allowing football’s age-old sores to fester

    Abject leadership is allowing football’s age-old sores to fester

    Those at the top are allowing the same issues to go unchallenged, says Michael Calvin