Dallas — The Dallas Opera fielded a different cast for its final performance of the year’s first offering—not for the major hit world premiere, Everest, but for the curtain-raiser, the fourth act of Catalani’s 1892 molto-Italiano opera La Wally. The Catalani was a good fit because it also takes place on a mountain and both end tragically.
Of course they do. It’s opera.
There was quite a lot of shuffling required to get a cast together in the first place. Rodrigo Garciarroyo Hagenbach and soprano Mary Elizabeth Williams sang on Jan. 30 (opening night), Feb. 1 and 4, 2015. On Saturday, tenor Arnold Rawls and soprano Melissa Citro took on the two roles.
The originally scheduled singers were Carl Tanner, who withdrew due to illness, and Latonia Moore, who withdrew because of her pregnancy.
It is a testament to the deep “bench” the Dallas Opera has of international singers that they could find four such distinguished artists to step in on what was short notice for the opera world (where things are scheduled years in advance). Adding to the problem, La Wally is not staged very often, so the list of singers who know the role is significantly shorter that it is for more frequently performed scores.
On Saturday, both singers did a fine job with these difficult roles. Rawls is a singer of great versatility. He has a heldentenor sound that is blessed with Italian squellando high notes. Once he hooks into a note above the staff, it is a remarkable sound—and so secure that he can park there for a while. His break is a little lower than more lyric tenors, which is typical of the heavier voices, but his transition is so smooth that you hardly notice it.
Citro is a purebred Wagnerian soprano with the power to sail out over almost anything the composer can toss at her from the pit. There is a troubling hint of a widening vibrato, but that seemed to minimize as the act progressed. She didn’t do much with offering a variety of dynamics, no floating pianissimos sung as those that Williams spun out in the previous performances. However, she was expressive with vocal expression and phrasing within her forte to fortissimo parameters.
Dramatically, it is very hard to start at the thrilling conclusion without making the entire journey with the characters. This was not a problem for all four singers, who responded to Candace Evans’ subtle stage direction.
With only two characters on the stage for most of the time—one long intense duet—there is little that can be done. However, Evans created some remarkable effects that were noticeable with a second viewing. One thing that really worked is having Wally always moving higher on the mountain path, as though trying to get away, and Giuseppe, her mistreated true love, ardently following her always upwards. Earlier, when Wally sends her loyal friend Walter (beautifully sung by Jennifer Chung) back to the village to live out his life and forget about her, there is a series of glances between them that expresses all the changing emotions Wally’s decision engenders.
In the final judgment, La Wally is not a great opera. It has some beautiful music, and its one famous aria (transplanted from the first act to the beginning of the fourth for this performance) is sung all the time. However, it is definitely second-level stuff. This does not mean that it should be relegated to history’s dusty shelves. Opera companies have a duty to present a wide range of operas, and not just the top 20 or so.
La Wally is of importance because it sits right in the middle of the verismo movement, of operas about the messy lives of ordinary people. Puccini carried on this movement although his later operas pointed more and more towards modernism.
Besides, to those who love the aria—who doesn’t?—it was a rare opportunity to experience the opera’s climatic act.
» Read our original review of Everest and the first cast of La Wally here
» Read our feature about the two operas here