Big Drama, Big Voices: La Wally at the Teatro Nacional de São Carlos

Catalani – La Wally

Wally – Zarina Abaeva
Stromminger – Luiz-Ottavio Faria
Afra – Patricia Quinta
Walter – Joana Seara
Giuseppe Hagenbach – Azer Zada
Vincenzo Gellner – Luis Cansino
Il Pedone – Nuno Dias

Coro do Teatro Nacional de São Carlos, Orquestra Sinfónica Portuguesa / Antonio Pirolli
Concert performance.

Teatro Nacional de São Carlos, Lisbon, Portugal.  Friday, October 16th, 2020.

For its first complete opera of this new season, the Teatro Nacional de São Carlos offered us the chance to hear a rarity, Catalani’s La Wally, in a series of three concert performances with an international and Portuguese cast, under Roman conductor Antonio Pirolli.  Naturally, given the current sanitary regulations, this was a different kind of concert performance.  Most of the principals made their entrances wearing masks, which they removed to sing, while the chorus was positioned on scaffolding behind the orchestra, singing from behind plastic sheeting.  I must admit that from my seat in the middle of the Plateia, there were balance issues that might have not been as apparent higher up in the house, with the chorus frequently sounding off stage.  That said, given the care the house had taken for everyone’s safety, the fact that we were able to attend this performance at all is something of a miracle.

Rehearsal photo: © Bruno Frango

La Wally is of course most famous for that celebrated soprano showpiece ‘Ebben? Ne andrò lontana’, but also for the titular character’s spectacular end by throwing herself into an avalanche.  I must admit to being perplexed as to why it isn’t done more often.  It’s a terrific romp, a typical love triangle between a soprano and tenor who aren’t aware of their true feelings, while she is promised to the baritone she really isn’t interested in.  There’s some lusty choral writing and the orchestral writing is full of the soupy late romanticism that makes for a wallowing evening in the theatre.

Rehearsal photo: © Bruno Frango

Indeed, this was very much brought to the fore by Pirolli’s highly idiomatic conducting.  He gave us a performance that was founded in a strong rhythmic impetus, but that also didn’t shy away from spinning long, languid lines.  He urged the strings of the Orquestra Sinfónica Portuguesa to dig deep, revelling in those soupy portamenti, and they rewarded him with playing of a high standard.  Yes, there was a lack of unanimity in the violins’ approach to the Act 4 prelude, but this was very much passing and the quality of what we heard would certainly have been at home in any major lyric theatre.  The chorus sang with agreeable blend of tone and remarkable accuracy given their distribution on stage.

The quality of the principals was also, with one significant exception, precisely of the standard one would expect in any major theatre and reinforced the fact that this house deserves its place on any discerning opera lover’s plans.  Zarina Abaeva was a thrilling find as Wally.  The Russian soprano is the owner of a magnificent instrument, from a big bold chestiness, to a copper-toned middle, rising to a gleaming top, she most certainly gave notice of an extremely bright future in this repertoire.  The voice is generously sized and used with ease.  She dispatched her celebrated number with genuine feeling, and throughout, her imperious stage presence displayed dignity and poise.  Abaeva also savoured the text, giving full attention to those Italian double consonants that so many others seem to ignore.  There were hints, though, that she could still do more with the role.  Her reliance on the score and the lack of shading of the tone in places suggested that her interpretation of this part will deepen with time.  Still, this is a major instrument and I look forward to following her career.

Rehearsal photo: © Bruno Frango

Her Giuseppe was Azer Zada.  The Azeri tenor has had some very prestigious assignments in his career so far.  I must admit that his performance was the sole disappointment of the evening and led to gratitude that his role was relatively short.  His is a lyric tenor that sounds pushed and forced to be several sizes bigger than it actually is.  This resulted in lumpy legato, an upper register that sounded pushed and strained – the physical effort to sustain this larger sound more than visible in the way Zada contorted his body to create it – and a reluctance to sing anything under forte.  On the isolated occasions in which he did pull back on the dynamics, the actual sound in the middle was quite agreeable.  But, on the whole his assumption of the role was heavy going, for us and for him.  He was, however, given a hearty ovation by the São Carlos public.

Rehearsal photo: © Bruno Frango

Luis Cansino was also an excellent find as Gellner.  The Galician baritone is the owner of a very big and resonant instrument, creating a huge column of sound.  In a world deprived of true Verdi and Puccini baritones, he’s the genuine article.  He was able to spin out a seductive legato as he tried to win over Wally, and he was also able to exclaim his rage without ever resorting to the need to hector.  On the basis of this evening, I would definitely like to hear him as Scarpia or Jago.  Luiz-Ottavio Faria sang Stromminger with a rounded, inky bass.  Joana Seara sang Walter in a charmingly creamy soprano and made a very creditable attempt at a trill – I would love to hear her as Susanna, a role she has previously sung at this address.  Patrícia Quinta sang Afra in a deliciously tart mezzo.

Rehearsal photo: © Bruno Frango

This was definitely a big night at the São Carlos.  Big drama, big voices, and some genuinely thrilling performances – with, as I mentioned above, one exception.  We were introduced, in Abaeva and Cansino, to some major talents and the quality of the house forces, as always, demonstrated why this is a house worth paying attention to.  Certainly, the fact that we were able to be here at all tonight is reason for gratitude.  The fact that the evening was so satisfying is a reason to celebrate.

During this period of theatrical closures, crowdfunding support for has been put on hold.  I encourage you to investigate ways of supporting your local companies and artists while houses remain closed.  Both the Patreon and PayPal for the site will resume as soon as theatres open again.


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