La Wally Synopsis


The village of Hochstoff

The landowner Stromminger is celebrating his 70th birthday. Gellner successfully fires a shot at the nearby target in his honor. Stromminger congratulates him on his skill.

A boy, Walter, comes in and asks where he can find Stromminger’s daughter, Wally. Encouraged by the villagers, he sings them the “Song of the Edelweiss” about a girl who climbed the mountain and perished beneath an avalanche to be reborn as a flower.

Hunting horns announce the men of Sölden. Stromminger welcomes them but is put out to recognize young Giuseppe Hagenbach. A bloodstained bearskin is carried in and Hagenbach describes his encounter with the bear. Stromminger states that he knows of a huntsman just as brave as Hagenbach – himself. Goaded by Hagenbach’s contempt, he hints that Hagenbach’s father was a coward. The young man calls him a liar and hurls him to the ground.

Wally arrives and separates the combatants. The men of Sölden drag away Hagenbach, who curses the old man for having provoked him to such an act of cowardice. But Wally reproaches him with a note of tenderness; as a young man, he should be the first to forgive. After the celebration breaks up, Gellner tells Stromminger that Wally is deeply in love with Hagenbach. Stromminger then realizes that Gellner is in love with her himself. He summons Wally, tells her that she is to marry Gellner within a month and leaves them together. Wally lets Gellner know that she does not love him and will never marry him. Her refusal prompts Stromminger to banish her from her home, and Wally decides to leave for the mountains.


The square of Sölden

A year has passed, and the feast of Corpus Christi is being celebrated. A Foot Soldier is in the center of a group of men. Walter enters dressed in clothes that are a gift from Wally who, since her father’s death, has become the richest landowner in the area. Hagenbach states that he would not mind dancing with her but both Afra and the Soldier warn him against trifling with love.

Wally arrives and some young men ask her for a dance. She responds that she will choose her partner in good time, and it will be no easy matter to steal a kiss from her; the man who succeeds will be hers forever. The square empties leaving Wally alone with Gellner, who renews his entreaties. Again, Wally refuses to listen to him, and he tells her that Hagenbach is to be married to Afra. Jealous, Wally summons the hostess and flings her drink to the ground. The hostess bursts into tears and Wally throws money at her.

Hagenbach picks up the money and gives it to the musicians, asking them to play a ländler. He promises to avenge Afra and bets his companions that he will take a kiss from Wally. He asks Wally to dance with him. She is dubious but finally consents. Wally confesses her love to Hagenbach, and he is very drawn to her. Hagenbach kisses Wally whereupon a cheer goes up. Afra has been avenged. Wally, humiliated, draws Gellner to her and indicates Hagenbach with the words: “I want him dead.”


The village of Hochstoff

Wally returns home. Walter offers to stay with her but she gently dismisses him. She is full of remorse, but reflects that Hagenbach most likely will remain at Sölden that night, so there is no need to countermand her instructions to Gellner until the morning. Gellner emerges from the shadows and ascertains from the Foot Soldier that Hagenbach is coming to Hochstoff. Hagenbach arrives to ask Wally’s forgiveness. Suddenly Gellner grabs him and hurls him into the ravine.

Hagenbach’s cry brings Wally out of the house. She thinks all is lost until another cry reassures her that Hagenbach is alive. She orders the villagers to bring ropes and torches. Wally goes into the ravine, and brings Hagenbach to safety. As Wally bids farewell, she turns over all her wealth to Afra and asks her to tell the unconscious Hagenbach that the kiss he stole from her has now been restored.


On the Murzoll Mountain

Walter begs Wally to return home with him. It will soon be Christmas and the paths are being destroyed by avalanches. But Wally tells him to return without her. When she hears her name being called, she imagines it is the spirits of the mountain, but it is Hagenbach who confesses his love for her. They dream of a new life together, oblivious to the sounds of a raging storm. Becoming aware of the danger, Hagenbach looks for the way down. The roar of an avalanche is heard. Wally calls his name, but there is no answer. Wally plunges after him to her death.

La Wally Background

Born in Lucca in 1854 into a family plagued by consumption and destined himself to die of that disease before he was forty, Alfredo Catalani came to maturity at a time when Italy was a musical melting pot. By the 1870’s the last remnants of the post-Rossinian tradition had been swept away. Foreign composers were flooding the operatic market. Liszt held court for part of every year at the Villa d’Este near Rome; German conductor and composer Hans von Bülow was active as a teacher in Florence and was even mentioned at one point as director of the Milan Conservatory. Wagner’s early works were rapidly gaining a foothold in Italian opera houses beginning with a much-acclaimed production of Lohengrin in Bologna in 1871.

All these new trends were eagerly followed by Catalani. His chief love was Wagner, of whom, however, he was never a mere imitator. Before entering the Milan Conservatory, he had spent six months of study in Paris, where he became acquainted with the music of Massenet, an important influence in the formation of his own style, as in that of his fellow Luccan, Puccini. His graduation piece for the Milan Conservatory, the one-act eclogue La Falce to a poem by Boito begins with an orchestral tone-poem describing a battle. First performed in 1875, it immediately alerted the musical world to the presence of a new, individual talent.

Thereafter, Catalani’s fortunes did not proceed so smoothly. At that time the fashion not only in Italy but throughout Europe was for grand opera: four or five acts with a central ballet, massive choruses and elaborate spectacle. Catalani’s talent lay in a different direction; he excelled in the intimate touch, in delicate poetry and pictorial suggestion. His Elda (1880) and Dejanice (1883) are weighed down by grandiosity. It seemed as if the hopes raised by La Falce were not destined to be fulfilled.

However, if Catalani was not making a powerful impression on the public, he had already acquired a number of devoted supporters: Giovannina Lucca, Ricordi’s chief rival in the publishing world; Giovanni Depanis, director of the Teatro Regio, Turin, and his son, Giuseppe, witty chronicler of the city’s musical events who became the composer’s life-long friend.

Finally, there was the young Arturo Toscanini, who promoted a number of performances of Catalani’s operas around the turn of the century. Indeed, to Toscanini, Catalani was the finest Italian composer of his generation. He was present at Catalani’s deathbed, and he named two of his own children after characters in Catalani’s operas. He had made his official debut as a conductor in Italy with a revival of Catalani’s fourth opera Edmea (1886), a work in which the tide of routine grandeur has already begun to ebb, and the composer’s personality took on a sharper edge.

Catalani had already been attracted to Wilhelmine von Hillern’s novel Die Geierwally (Wally, the vulture girl) when it appeared in Italian as a serial in the Milan periodical La Perseveranza in 1887. The following year, while waiting for Giulio Ricordi to glance at his complete Loreley (a heavily revised Elda), he decided to commission a libretto at his own expense from Luigi Illica, then at the start of his career as a theatrical poet. Towards the end of 1888, Catalani wrote to Giuseppe Depanis, “If you like, you can put in the Gazzetta Piemontese that Illica and I are working on a splendid subject taken from a German novel called La Wally. You’ll see that I’m not mistaken when I tell you that this time I’ve found an excellent libretto – a drama that’s lively, palpitating, new.” And three months later, “This opera should be ready in a couple of years; I’m writing it on my own, without tying myself to any publisher. After that, anyone who wants to, can buy it.”

Possibly it was the news that his new rival, Edoardo Sonzogno, was disposed to make a bid for Catalani’s latest opera that decided Giulio Ricordi to take an interest in Loreley, which finally reached the stage in February 1890 and scored a minor triumph. It remained to follow this success with La Wally. The premiere on January 20, 1892 at La Scala was an outstanding success and ran for eighteen further performances. Catalani had at length arrived – even if he had only a year and a half more to live.

Julian Budden was an opera scholar, radio producer, and broadcaster. He is particularly known for his three volumes on the operas of Giuseppe Verdi and a single-volume work on Giacomo Puccini and his operas.