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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Novaya Opera Unveils Rare Italian Treasure

Moscow's municipal opera troupe, Novaya Opera, celebrates its fifth anniversary this month and next with repeat stagings of practically its entire repertoire, plus a new production, in concert form, of a rare gem from the pen of a late 19th-century Italian composer.

That gem is Alfredo Catalani's "La Wally," which was sung for the first time in Russia last week at the Great Hall of the Moscow Conservatory and is due to be repeated Feb. 6 and 13 in the Tchaikovsky Concert Hall.

Although "La Wally" has seldom been seen or heard anywhere in modern times, most opera lovers know of it by way of the heroine's passionate aria, "Ebben ne andro lontano," music sung and recorded by nearly every notable lyric soprano of the 20th century. Some may recall that conductor Arturo Toscanini showed his high esteem for the opera by bestowing the names of two of its characters on his son and daughter.

Born in the same Tuscan town of Lucca as Giacomo Puccini, and just four years Puccini's senior, Alfredo Catalani spent much of his adult life battling tuberculosis within the confines of a mountain sanatorium. His first and only real success as a composer came in 1892, when, at age 38, he witnessed the premiere of "La Wally" at La Scala in Milan. His short life ended just a year and a half later, as he struggled to begin a new opera based on Tolstoy's "On the Steppe."

"La Wally" sets to music a libretto by Luigi Illica, who later helped supply the texts for Puccini's "La Boheme," "Tosca" and "Madame Butterfly," and presents a curious mixture of fantasy and realism. It tells the story of a Tyrolean girl, much given to mystical communing with nature, who takes to the high Alps after disappointment in love and eventually dies in an avalanche. Catalani's music, much of it highly original in sonority, ranges from simple folk-like melody to passionate outpourings of the sort found in the works of Puccini and other Italian composers of the verismo school.

Though quite beautiful simply as a piece of music, "La Wally" cries out for a full staging. Perhaps Novaya Opera will find resources in the future to present it with costumes, sets and action. In any case, the company has at least made an excellent start with its concert version, which is notable above all for the precise, yet exciting and idiomatic conducting of its musical director, Yevgeny Kolobov.

As is normally the case with Novaya Opera, the solo roles are all sung competently, at times even outstandingly. Only Yelena Zelenskaya, in the fiercely demanding title part, seems somewhat miscast. Hers is a strong and accurate soprano, well able to cope with notes spread over three octaves, but its metallic upper register and lack of warmth often sound at odds with Catalani's score.

Reservations aside, Novaya Opera's new "La Wally" provides a wealth of musical pleasure and should not be missed by anyone with a taste for Italian opera. Once again, the company and its musical director have provided Moscow audiences with a strong breath of fresh air.

Kobolov himself has become something of a cult figure, even a legend, in local music circles. From an apprenticeship in Sverdlovsk and work in the pit of St. Petersburg's Kirov (now Mariinsky) Theater, Kobolov arrived in Moscow in 1981 to assume musical directorship of the Stanislavsky and Nemirovich-Danchenko Musical Theater. Attempting to shake the dust from that institution, he produced a string of remarkable new productions, including Modest Mussorgsky's "Boris Godunov" in the composer's original version and orchestration, and the Russian premiere of Vincenzo Bellini's "I Puritani."

Whether Kobolov was ousted from the Stanislavsky and Nemirovich-Danchenko Musical Theater or departed voluntarily remains somewhat shrouded in mystery. Whatever the case, he took with him a large part of the theater's orchestra, chorus, solo contingent and administrative staff, as well as a devoted following among Moscow music lovers. With financial support from Moscow's city government, he moved on to form Novaya Opera early in 1991.

A slim, wiry figure on the podium, Kobolov has a style of conducting nearly as eccentric as that of his one-time boss in St. Petersburg, Yury Temikanov, now principal conductor of that city's noted Philharmonic. But the results he achieves are normally outstanding, especially in the sort of operatic music that is obviously closest to his heart, that of 19th-century Italy and Russia.

Novaya Opera made its debut five years ago with a controversial, yet enormously effective semi-staged "fantasy" on Mikhail Glinka's "Ruslan and Lyudmila," reducing that first of all Russian operatic masterpieces to half its usual five-hour length. The company's subsequent successes have included full stagings of two little-known Italian bel canto works, Donizetti's "Maria Stuarda" and Verdi's "I due Foscari," as well as a costumed potpourri of tunes by Gioachino Rossini called, quite simply, "Rossini." Perhaps its only false note so far was its mounting last February of the lavish spectacle "O, Mozart! Mozart ... ," which combined Mozart's own requiem with Rimsky-Korsakov's little opera "Mozart and Salieri" to truly disastrous effect.

Lacking a permanent home, Novaya Opera has so far led a gypsy existence, offering its wares in wide range of concert halls and theaters throughout the city. Late next year, however, the troupe will acquire a state-of-the-art facility all its own, when it occupies the theater that Moscow's city government is now reconstructing for it on the grounds of the Hermitage Gardens on Karetny Ryad.

Late in 1994, Novaya Opera presented a splendid concert version of Anton Rubinstein's opera "The Demon," and this March it turns to yet another neglected Russian masterpiece, Dargomyzhsky's "Rusalka," which will also be given in concert form.

The following month, the opera's plans call for staging a new concoction called "Rehearsal of Eugene Onegin," which will presumably give audiences a chance to view the creation of a production from the singers' perspective. Come next summer, Novaya Opera takes up temporary residence in the 18th-century Sheremetyev Palace at Ostankino for a staging of Paisiello's "Barber of Seville," the rarely heard predecessor of Rossini's familiar opera buffo.

The remainder of Novaya Opera's current festival, in addition to the repeat performances of "La Wally" Feb. 6 and 13, offers an opportunity to hear "Ruslan and Lyudmila" (Chekhov Moscow Art Theater, Jan. 28, and Meridian House of Culture, Feb. 18, both performances at noon), "I due Foscari" (Chekhov Moscow Art Theater, Jan. 29, and Meridian House of Culture, Feb. 17, 7 p.m.), "Maria Stuarda" (Chekhov Moscow Art Theater, Jan. 30 and Feb. 1, 7 p.m.), "Rossini" (Chekhov Moscow Art Theater, Jan. 31, and Meridian House of Culture, Feb. 14, 7 p.m.) and "O, Mozart! Mozart ..." (Meridian House of Culture, Feb. 16, 7 p.m.). Tickets may be purchased at theaters' box offices or ordered directly from Novaya Opera by telephone at 911-1440.