Alfredo Catalani's La Wally is the last of three rarely performed Italian operas from the late 19th century verismo period to feature in Opera Holland Park's 2011 season. Catalani belongs to group of composers whose place in the modern repertoire suffers from the problem of "not being Puccini," the more poignantly since he was born in Puccini's home town of Lucca.

La Wally is set in an ordinary village high in the Tyrolean Alps. Wally is the strong, tomboyish, and wilful daughter of Stromminger, the coarse, violent head man of the village. When she falls head over heels in love with the star hunter of a neighbouring village who just happens to be the son of her father's despised enemy, a series of macho boasts and power games get seriously out of hand, with tragic results. The libretto was written by Luigi Illica (the co-librettist of Tosca, La Bohème, Manon Lescaut and Madama Butterfly), and is excellent. Complex characters are developed lucidly, and the series of tragic events portrayed believably and frighteningly. It's great drama.

I thoroughly enjoyed the music: its textures are rich and varied, with some unusual touches such as an extended accompanying passage that gives the harpist a real workout. There's some lovely writing for both voice and orchestra, and both the overture and the ends of Acts II and IV pack real firepower. From a shaky start, conductor Peter Robinson improved as the opera went on, although he never quite achieved the right balance with his singers (always a difficult task if you're working without an orchestra pit).

The pick of the singers was Stephen Gadd as Gellner, Stromminger's friend who is hopelessly infatuated with Wally (who makes it crystal clear that she doesn't return his love). Gadd gave a splendid account of a strong man brought to ineffectual weakness by a love he can't control, and he sang with vigour, authority and melodic tenderness when required. The antagonistic chemistry between him and Gweneth-Ann Jeffers sizzled, and their duet which closes the second act was explosive. I'd fancy seeing the pairing as Scarpia and Tosca one day. Jeffers was excellent in the dramatic passages, in which she summoned up powerful and precise high notes without a hint of harshness or wobble. She was less persuasive in the gentler, more lyrical arias, and things tended to get a bit lost beneath the orchestra when the music demanded agility low down in her register. Stephen Richardson gave us a thoroughly believable Stromminger: coarse, jocular and violent. Adrian Dwyer's Hagenbach was pleasant to listen to, although it's a role in which I would have preferred a more dramatic/heroic voice to Dwyer's smooth clarity.

La Wally isn't the easiest opera to stage. Quite apart from the need to stage an avalanche at the end, the stage directions Act I call for a large village square in an alpine landscape with houses and pine forests, a lamp hanging from a large cross, a bridge spanning two gigantic crags, a tortuous path and the snow-covered peaks of Murzoll and Similan in the distance. However, the less said about Martin Lloyd-Evans' production the better. Costumes were indifferent, and the main feature of the set was a giant mostly-white sheet with dozens of ropes which were constantly pulling it into different shapes. It added little in the way of atmosphere, and the ropes merely got in the way. Catalani's passionate overture was drowned in the noise of moving pulleys, and I had to close my eyes in order to listen to the beautiful, delicate preludes to Acts III and IV without the annoying distractions being served up on stage.

But for the most part, it was possible to ignore the setting and enjoy the music and the drama, which came out the winners: La Wally is a strong story convincingly told with music that's consistently enjoyable and interesting, with several "wow" moments. What more can you ask for from an evening at the opera? Catalani is one of many late 19th century Italian composers whose place in the current repertoire is limited to one or two operas by the overpowering presence of Puccini. On the evidence of last night, I think La Wally thoroughly deserves to be performed more regularly.