Catalani: A Forgotten Radical

Article by Gavin Plumley

It is fascinating to think that Alfredo Catalani was born in the same year as Leoš Janáček and Engelbert Humperdinck.  His musical style lies between those two markedly different composers of 1854.  Embracing the violent realism of Janáček’s Jenůfa (1904), while exploring the decadent post-Wagnerian strains of Humperdinck, Catalani is an intriguing figure in the history of opera.  Although he ultimately failed to compete with his compatriot Puccini’s nascent dramatic verve, Catalani forged an innovative and fresh idiom, encompassing verismo and the poetic.  His influences were broad and various and La Wally, first performed at La Scala in 1892, is a superb distillation of his diverse but integrated style.  Sadly, Catalani’s reputation has not been able to escape Puccini’s shadow, and his early death in 1893 prevented him from building on the passion and musical ingenuity of La Wally.

The intrinsic rivalry between Catalani and Puccini was as much a local story as an international one.  Both composers came from the provincial Tuscan city of Lucca, although Catalani had a four-year advantage over Puccini.  Encouraged by his father, he studied composition at the city’s Istituto Musicale Pacini under Fortunato Magi, Puccini’s uncle.  He graduated in 1872 with a composition prize and quickly sought to further his studies and build a career elsewhere.  He travelled first to Paris to learn at the city’s renowned conservatoire, but attacks of haemoptysis – the production of unsightly blood when coughing, most likely due to tuberculosis – were a sad hint at the brevity of his life.  Nevertheless, Catalani was adamant that he wanted to be a composer and threw himself into his Parisian studies before returning to Italy.  He settled in Milan.

The grand and wealthy northern Italian city was an intellectual hotbed at that time.  Like Baudelaire’s Paris or Vienna at the turn of the last century, Milan was awash with the young movers and shakers of the late Risorgimento period.  These scapigliati, or ‘dishevelled young men’, wanted an artistic revolution to parallel the vast changes in Italian politics.  They challenged social and sexual mores and reinvigorated established forms and structures within the country’s cultural history.  Catalani came to Milan at the height of the unofficial movement’s power, becoming fast friends with figures such as the musican and writer Arrigo Boito and his composer comrade Franco Faccio.  Although Boito became more aligned to the establishment through his work with Verdi, he nevertheless maintained a strictly antibourgeois stance.  Boito’s bold polemic ‘All’arte italiana’ became the Scapigliatura’s informal manifesto.  The altar of Italian culture, he said, had been stained like the walls of a brothel and it was within his generation’s gift to change that.  Such iconoclastic invective thrilled the young and impressionable Catalani.

It was through Boito and his coterie that Catalani came to know Wagner’s music.  His enthusiasm for the German composer knew no bounds and the Bayreuth master’s music dramas became the epitome of the Scapigliatura movement.  He was bold, innovative and uncompromising.  As Catalani slowly began to establish himself on the Milanese scene, it was Giovannina Lucca, Wagner’s Italian publisher, who commissioned Catalani’s first opera.  Based on the Germanic legend of the Lorelei, Elda was written in 1876 and revised in 1877.  Suffused with chic northern mythology as well as a heavy dose of Das Rhinegold, Catalani proved himself a dedicated adherent to Boito and his unkempt group.

At the same time and contrary to the young Milanese’s fixation, a parallel fervour for belligerent realism began to spread across Europe.  In France, ‘down-at-heel’ operas had been all the rage since Bizet’s Carmen premiered at the Opéra-Comique in 1875.  So while Baudelaire and his Parisian clique distanced literature as far from daily life as possible, Bizet’s opera and the novels of Emile Zola were divergent frank slices of ‘reality’.  When Italian intellectuals began to pick up on these new trends, two opposing intellectual factions began to emerge.  One of the foremost elements of the realism school was the shock factor of its violent and passionate tales.  And at a time when Italy was seeking reassurance in its identity, the obligatory dose of local colour proved hugely attractive.

These stories soon found a way into the opera house.  In 1890 fellow Tuscan Pietro Mascagni’s Cavalleria rusticana burst onto the scene and verismo was born.  Based on a play by Giovanni Verga, the opera is a graphic depiction of the lives of Sicilian villagers and the tragic results of their all too quick temperaments.  Replete with ear biting and duelling, Verga and Mascagni’s gritty slice-of-life realism was hailed as the start of a new era.  The opera’s quick succession of pithy conversational scenes was a marked retort to the grand Wagnerism of Boito’s scapigliati.  The enormous success of the Rome premiere of Cavalleria rusticana immediately spawned offshoots across Italy.  The craze continued in Rome with Umberto Giordano’s 1892 opera Mala vita and came to Milan later that same year with the premiere of Ruggero Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci.  Catalani could have been in no doubt of the popularity of this new craze.  And as his more poetic, Bayreuth-inspired operas remained on the periphery of the repertoire, he had to think seriously about this new approach.

It was from this melée of competing ideas that the seed for La Wally was planted.  Having revised Elda yet again, with the new version performed under the title of Loreley in Turin in 1890, Catalani was keen to build on the success.  One of his collaborators on the revision was the poet Luigi Illica.  Illica, who would later go on to score terrific success with Puccini, came from similarly radical stock.  But Illica was more thoroughly imbued with this new verisitic mood and, although his writing initially tended toward the crude and melodramatic, he became one of its greatest exponents.  He was, then, the perfect collaborator for Catalani, melding new fashions with old radicalism.  Catalani had already found his subject, choosing Wilhelmine von Hillern’s 1875 novel Die Geyer-Wally (Wally the Vulture).  Telling the story of a tomboyish girl, caught in the crossfire of rival families, it had the hallmarks of verismo as well as the chic of Germanic Romanticism, set high up in the Alps.  Catalani personally commissioned the libretto from Illica and the work began.

The subject matter played perfectly to Illica’s realistic credentials.  Yet it was also imbued with natural poetry and the mountainous setting evoked an august history of Alpine literature and music.  Like Bellini’s La sonnambula, which capitalised on the strange craggy allure of the Alps, von Hillern’s novel exploits the prevailing belief that the highland way of life was more feral than in the plains.  For countless poets, painters and composers, this aggressive but majestic landscape prompted thoughts of insignificance in the face of nature (and of God).  The paintings of Caspar David Friederich picture lone wanderers pitched high in the landscape, overlooking vast swirling clouds of mist.  Figures such as Hannibal and Manfred were induced in vast tracts on the Romantic imagination and thoughts of such an irrational and hostile panorama became a Europe-wide fascination.  For Catalani, living in Milan, the distant hazy peaks of the Dolomites (and beyond to the Alps) would have held particular fascination.  So the themes of von Hillern’s novel brilliantly echoed that attraction, while providing suitably violent events for the operatic stage.  In short, if Catalani was going to play the realistic game so favoured at the time, he was going to do it on his own terms.  Illica obliged with a shapely libretto, replete with touching poetry and local colour, though never shying from more imposing statements.  Catalani responded with his greatest score.

The brief overture has the hallmark of confidence and of a composer at the top of his game.  Prefiguring the grand sweep of Puccini’s La fanciulla del West, it is filled with gusto and attack.  This is a passionate but volatile world, in which Wally is trapped.  Her music is contrastingly long-spun, melancholic and whimsical.  Her insistence that she would rather wonder alone in the snow than marry a man she does not love aligns her with the great unobtainable heroines of operatic yore, though she is more level-headed than many.  As she leaves at the end of Act 1, having sung her contemplative aria ‘Ebben! Ne andrò lontana’, neither she nor we seemingly know the tragedy that awaits her.  Catalani’s ability to contrast the antagonistic world of her father and Hagenbach with Wally’s own lyricism underlines the duality at play in the opera as a whole.  And it is Wally’s longing sadness that pervades the overture to Act 3, a clear evocation of the futility of her situation.  That Wally can appear as such an elegiac but radiant individual within this foreboding landscape is testament to Catalani’s musical fluency.

That emotional eloquence is mirrored in the structural confidence of the opera.  Moving away from the static ‘number’ approach of the Italian tradition, Catalani echoes the late works of Verdi and Wagner’s through-composed music dramas.  While La Wally has been subject to customary ‘bleeding chunks’ treatment since it was first performed (not least the use of ‘Ebben! Ne andrò lontana’ in several films) those sections are difficult to separate out when the score is heard as a whole.  As such Catalani’s opera prefigures Puccini’s flowing scenes more than their verismo counterparts.  And Catalani’s ability to meld these divergent strands was unparalleled, until the premiere of Puccini’s Manon Lescaut in Turin the following year.  It hurt Catalani that his now-favoured collaborator Illica shifted allegiance to work with his rival.  But looking at the two works side by side, it is easy to see the hallmarks of Illica’s work on La Wally coming into play in his adaptation of Prévost’s established tale.  Both are high-Romantic stories on to which Illica (working with Giuseppe Giacosa and others on Manon Lescaut) threw a more veristic light.  Although often forgotten in comparative literature about that time, La Wally represents a major crossroads in the Italian operatic repertoire.  The work, contemporaneous with Verdi’s final opera Falstaff, the first verismo operas and Puccini’s early masterpieces, shows Catalani primed to benefit from the major cultural revival in his nation’s history.  His bold hybrid of contrasting styles, post-Wagnerian fin de siècle aestheticism and the more brutal style of the young school, promised him a respected spot on the operatic scene.  Despite his early death and before he could capitalise on his success, verismo itself began to change in response to his (and others’) work.  While Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci continued the trends set out by Mascagni, other composers sought to underline more amorous and literary merits in pieces such as Giordano’s Fedora (1898) and Zandonai’s later Francesca da Rimini (1914).  Although the moniker verismo is used liberally within the framework of these works, its harshly realistic quality began to wane.  The high passions of these later operas, as well as those of La bohème (1896) and Tosca (1900) replicate the imaginative blend of truth and passion that suffuses La Wally.

Catalani will doubtless languish behind Puccini in operatic history forever.  With only one hit to his name, it’s hard to make a substantial case for the forgotten master.  Yet La Wally and his work within the scapigliatura movement shows Catalani to be one of the most chameleon-like figures within Italian musical history.  Coming to prominence at a time when Verdi rounded off his operatic legacy and Puccini began to flourish, Catalani could have continued to bridge the gaps between their contrasting styles and moods.  Sadly, like his eponymous heroine, he was not strong enough to withstand the inevitable.  The underlying haemoptysis that had blighted his student years eventually killed him in 1893, just as his persecution complex about the success of others began to take its toll.  It was a sad end to a promising life and cut short a promising career before his ideas could be tested in a new and more radical century.

Gavin Plumley is a writer and broadcaster specialising in the music and culture of Central Europe.  He blogs at