Puccini’s Le Willis: a fine new recording from Opera Rara

Puccini’s composition teacher, Amilcare Ponchielli, found him a librettist,
the young journalist and playwright, Ferdinando Fontana, who was willing to
furnish him with a plot for a meagre fee. Puccini seems to have been
delighted with it, writing to his mother in August 1883, ‘It should be a
good little subject, one that I like very much indeed, as it will mean
working quite a lot in the symphonic descriptive genre, and that will suit
me very well, because I think I can succeed in it.’


However, despite Ponchielli’s presence on the prize jury, Puccini’s opera,
titled Le Willis, did not even garner an ‘honourable mention’.
Subsequently, friends of the composer, among them one Boito Arrigo raised
sufficient subscription funds to stage a performance at the Teatro Dal
Verme in Milan on 31 May 1884. Julian Budden reports that the orchestra
included several students from the Conservatory, including Pietro Mascagni
on the double bass. The performance was such a success that Antonio
Gramola, the critic of Il Corriere della Sera, proclaimed: ‘We
honestly believe that Puccini could be the composer for whom Italy has been
waiting a long time.’

Ricordi, presumably prompted by Ponchielli, purchased the score and set
about arranging a performance in Turin to open the 1884-85 Carnival season,
persuading Puccini to expand the opera into two acts. The composer added a
cavatina for Anna (‘Se come voi piccina’); an intermezzo (‘L’abbandono’); a
dramatic ‘scena’ for Roberto; and a reprise of the duet ‘Tu dell’infanzia
mia’ in the finale ultimo, interwoven with fragments of
‘L’abbandono’. The revised work, Le Villi, was subtitled
‘opera-ballo in due atti’. It was not a great success. Nor was a subsequent
revival in Milan on 24 January 1885 which brought further additions which
were, with other modifications, included in the editions of the opera that
were published in 1888 and 1892.

No more was heard of the one-act Le Willis. Until, that is, Opera
Rara presented a concert performance of the opera at the Royal Festival
Hall in November 2018, in which Sir Mark Elder conducted a fine trio of
soloists – Ermonela Jaho (Anna), Arsen Soghomonyan (Roberto) and Brian
Mulligan (Guglielmo) – alongside the London Philharmonic Orchestra and the Opera
Rara Chorus (as mountain folk, Willis and Spirits) in the modern-day
premiËre, utilising a new critical edition prepared by musicologist Martin
Deasy. Now, Opera Rara have released a world premiËre studio recording of
the Le Willis, made shortly after that live performance.

The starting point for Fontana’s libretto was the short story, ‘Les
Willis’, by the French novelist Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr, which also
formed the basis for Adolphe Adam’s ballet, Giselle. But, Fontana
gave the original legend of Le Vila – the spirits of young girls who have
died of grief after being betrayed by their beloveds – a few grim twists.

The tale is set in the Black Forest, where we find Roberto and Anna
celebrating their engagement, though Anna is forlorn as Roberto must travel
to Mainz to collect the inheritance of his deceased aunt. Despite his vow
to be eternally faithful, when he is in Mainz Roberto is seduced by a
‘siren’ who lures him to ‘obscene orgies’ and robs him, leaving him
penniless. Anna dies of a broken heart and is transformed into a Willi,
who, the legend tells, force their deserters to dance to their deaths.
Guglielmo, bereft and distraught, asks the Willis to avenge his daughter’s
death. When Roberto returns to the forest, Anna’s spirit appears and sings
of her suffering. He asks for forgiveness but – in contrast to Giselle where the young village maiden’s love sustains the fickle
lord of the manor through his ordeal, until he is saved by the midnight
bell – Roberto is shown no such mercy and Anna orders the Willis to punish
his dalliance with their dance of death.

Le Willis
is a strange, hybrid work, lasting less than an hour but incorporating
dances which are woven into the action and two brief passages of declaimed
poetry to cover ‘gaps’ in the drama (and during which Anna’s body is seen,
behind a gauze curtain, being borne across the stage to the accompaniment
of an unseen chorus). Budden suggests that the integration of different
genres is characteristic of the contemporary ‘scapigliatura’ movement,
whose members rebelled against accepted artistic and even moral conventions
– something which Deasy explores further in his informative liner book
essay, ‘Freshness of fantasy and phrases that touch the heart: the story of
Puccini’s Le Willis’.

Sir Mark Elder is comfortably at home in this repertory and inspires energy
and vibrancy from the London Philharmonic Orchestra, whose soulful
upwellings and surges repeatedly raise the emotional temperature with
blazes of colour, and the Opera Rara Chorus. The mountain folk in the
Introductory Chorus are hearty of voice and light on their feet. Puccini’s
score may be the work of a young man in his twenties, and the sequential
melodic build-ups may be rather perfunctory lyrical effusions, but the
sheen of the LPO strings draws our attention to the evidence that Puccini’s
mature voice was already burgeoning beautifully. There is delicacy too, as
when woodwind wisps unfold at the start of the Preludio, the clarinet
curls, sleepy horn birdcalls and winding bassoon conjuring the mysteries
and myths of the Black Forest. The orchestral interlude which follows
Roberto’s departure for Mainz is similarly evocative – first, of the
lovers’ innocence and passion; then, of the wildness of the ‘lewd orgies’
into which Roberto is enticed; and finally, of the febrile frenzy of the
whirling Willis who dance in demonic anticipation of Roberto’s return to
the forest.

Fragile intensity is one of Ermonela Jaho trademarks (see



La traviata
) and this allying of the vulnerable and the feverish is evident from the
first when Anna tells, in her opening duet with Roberto, of a mind troubled
by foreboding. When she appears as a Willi before the repentant Roberto,
Jaho’s stirring vocalism is the very representation of both Anna’s
fearsomeness and his terror. Even though we barely have time to ‘get to
know’ Anna, Jaho makes the innocent girl’s memories of the purity of her
love and the agony of her heart’s suffering utterly convincing.

As Roberto, Arsen Soghomonyan offers plentiful throbbing Italianate ardour,
as when reassuring Anna of his devotion, but is a little strained at the
top, though this is not unfitting in the dramatic context. Roberto’s plea
to Guglielmo for his blessing, on the eve of Roberto’s departure, is
earnest. Brian Mulligan captures Guglielmo’s geniality and warmth in the
prayer he offers, which is firm of resolve and faith, and later
communicates the bereaved father’s wrenching grief, aided by dark churnings
and thudding anger in the lower strings, insisting that Roberto’s guilt
must be avenged.

At the Festival Hall in November last year, some of Puccini’s later
additions were performed as encores, following the final duet for Anna and
Roberto, and they are included in the recording as an appendix. Jaho’s aria
‘Se come voi piccina’ – sung as she puts flowers in Roberto’s suitcase,
futilely imagining the petals will not fade and thus will keep his memory
of his love alive – is impassioned and sincere. And, in this more expansive
vocal number we can hear how Puccini winds together the strings and voice
while using the woodwind as coloristic strokes of his emotive paintbrush.
Similarly, the broader canvas allows Soghomonyan to inhabit his character
more fully and sweep through a range of emotions; he’s at his best in
‘Torna ai felici’ where Roberto’s heart-wracking regret is deepened by the
oboe’s nudging reminders of his loss. Again, Puccini’s orchestration makes
it mark, the interaction between horns and voice adding urgency of feeling.

It’s hard to imagine the one-act Le Willis being staged: it’s not
surprising that Puccini felt bound to extend the work, for, with the bulk
of the action ‘represented’ by the orchestral interlude and ballet in the
centre it feels rather like a sandwich without its dramatic filling. But,
Puccini’s score is rich and rousing. Opera Rara’s recording is a treat for
both Puccini aficionados and all lovers of a stirring tale and fine music,
well sung and well played.

Claire Seymour


See Julian Budden, ‘The genesis and literary source of Giacomo
Puccini’s first opera’ in Cambridge Opera Journal, 1(1)
(1989): 79-85.

image_description=Opera Rara ORC59
product_title=Puccini: Le Willis
product_by=Ermonela Jaho (Anna), Arsen Soghomonyan (Roberto), Brian Mulligan (Guglielmo), London Philharmonic Orchestra, Opera Rara Chorus, conducted by Sir Mark Elder
product_id=Opera Rara ORC59 [CD]