A valuable addition to the library on late 19th century Italian opera, this book sheds new light on the short, tragic life of an important composer whose music is consistently interesting and worthy of greater attention. --Alan Mallach, author of `The Autumn of Italian Opera' and `Pietro Mascagni and His Operas'
Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
In the final volume of his monumental trilogy, The Operas of Verdi, Julian Budden states:
Whether if he had lived [Alfredo] Catalani would have overtaken his fellow-Luccan Puccini as the front-runner of the `giovane scuola' can only be guessed. Certain of their contemporaries, notably [Arturo] Toscanini, thought that Catalani had the finer sensibility of the two.
Such a comment will surprise - perhaps astonish - the many people who consider household-name Puccini securely established at the centre of the modern operatic repertoire, while knowing nothing of his `fellow-Luccan.' Yet Catalani's music, though obviously much less well known than Puccini's, has proved of enduring value, its beauty and power frequently surprising and delighting those who have taken the trouble to listen. Thus such a sensitive and informed opera critic as David McKee, reviewing some recordings of La Wally (1892), Catalani's last opera, a few years ago, found himself disagreeing with the conventional conclusions of operatic history:
The more one delves into it [La Wally], the more one recognizes why Arturo Toscanini esteemed its composer over Puccini. ... Had Catalani lived beyond his too-brief allotment of years (1854-1893), he would have emerged as a more plausible bearer of the Verdian standard than Puccini.
Noting the increasingly international style of Italian opera in the late 1800s, McKee goes on to praise Catalani's intelligent and sensitive assimilation of German influences: `La Wally displays a more convincing synthesis of the German and Italian styles than do any of Puccini's scores ... La Wally stands astride the Alps.'
There is no need to agree, or to think that some sort of choice between the two composers must be made: Puccini and Catalani is surely preferable to Puccini or Catalani. But given Puccini's domination of the modern stage, the lazy, widespread assumption that success in art is a measure of merit, and the stale half-truths which have all too often allowed Catalani to be dismissed as a transitional figure, it is always refreshing to hear a sensible case made for the older composer. It was Catalani, after all, that Verdi famously described as `a good man and excellent musician!' Less well known is Puccini's own tribute to the `fellow-Luccan' he had seen as a dangerous rival. In 1900 he hailed Catalani as a `distinguished and original composer,' a `glorious yet unfortunate artist,' `a lasting memory etched into the soul of any Italian endowed with an appreciation and love for all things tender and poetic.'