Puccini’s first opera is understood to be Le Villi, but until now anyone who has ever heard it would have been experiencing the two-act version, and not the composer’s original. This is because that, with the alternative spelling of Le Willis, remained unperformed from 1884, when it premiered, to this week when Opera Rara, with the London Philharmonic Orchestra being conducted by Sir Mark Elder, presented Martin Deasy’s newly developed edition of it.
The opera was composed for a competition in 1883 run by Milanese publisher and impresario Edoardo Sonzogno, with Puccini setting a libretto created by journalist Ferdinando Fontana. It got nowhere in the contest, while the two entries that won have long since been forgotten. However, even then it was clear that, although Puccini’s work may have been overlooked for possessing an unconventional operatic form, being illegible or because one judge was determined it should not win (different theories abound, although Deasy maintains that the manuscript was legible, albeit incomplete), it was a cut above anything else that might have been submitted. Fontana, in particular, was keen to see it staged and, after securing the support of some important Milanese patrons, the premiere took place on 31 May 1884 at the Teatro del Verme in Milan. Soon afterwards the publishing house Ricardi began its long relationship with Puccini, and persuaded him to extend the opera to two acts, which is how the second, and now better known, version came about.
The story, with its emphasis on a woman dying of a broken heart and joining the Villi to take revenge on the man who deserted her, seems reminiscent of Adolphe Adam’s ballet Giselle of 1841. However, while the basic theme is similar, the details are quite different. In Giselle it is ultimately the class system that prevents the peasant girl from being with Count Albrecht, while no problems deriving from social hierarchies arise here. More importantly, while in the ballet Giselle protects her erstwhile lover from the Villi, here her equivalent is the prime mover in ensuring he is danced to death.
Set in the Black Forest, the plot sees Roberto and Anna celebrate their engagement with Anna’s father Guglielmo and the entire village. Roberto, however, must go to Mainz before the ceremony, and Anna is terrified as she had a dream that she would die awaiting his return. Roberto swears his loyalty to her, and at the time really means what he says. However, while he is away he is lured by a siren, and Anna dies when he does not come back to her. In death, she is taken under the wing of the Villi who are the ghosts of women who died of a broken heart when their lovers jilted them, and who seek revenge from beyond the grave. Thus, when Roberto is abandoned by the siren and finally returns, he encounters Anna as a spirit who is not prepared to accept his excuses and leads the Villi in dancing him to death.
However, the only sections of the opera that feature drama in the conventional sense are the beginning up until the point when Roberto departs for Mainz, and the end when Anna has her final confrontation with him. The entire middle section, covering the siren’s tempting of Roberto, the death of Anna, the legend of the Villi and Roberto’s final decision to return, is told through an Intermezzo Sinfonico, with Puccini’s score featuring two poems that describe the action that occurs during it. This alone may have been enough for any competition judge, assessing the opera by any conservative criteria, to pass it over, and Verdi, in fact, warned that ‘inserting a symphony into an opera is not necessarily a good thing’. To us, however, with such an impassioned ending to the piece only coming after this ‘lull’, it rather feels as if the one-act opera has finished just as it was getting going.
Nevertheless, the music is extremely beautiful, and clearly recognisable as Puccini as there is sheer joy in the initial celebrations that involve the chorus (here the Opera Rara Chorus), and the most emotional of endings. In retrospect this seems an even greater achievement, because we now know that Puccini excelled in verismo so that his ability to make his style work for such a fantastical subject matter becomes all the more remarkable. However, it is telling that although Anna cries ‘I am no longer love, I am vengeance’ her final scene seems to reveal her sorrow and grief at what has happened rather more than it does anger. As such, Puccini makes even this hyperbolic encounter feel human and thus relatable.
Puccini’s writing when all three characters sing together is particularly skilful, and here was brought out to the full by Brian Mulligan’s strong and assertive baritone as Guglielmo, Arsen Soghomonyan’s dark but exceptionally versatile tenor as Roberto, and Ermonela Jaho’s highly committed and emotional performance as Anna. The orchestration is more sparing in this first version of the opera and proves to be one of the reasons why it is so interesting, and pleasing in its own right, to hear. After the performance ended, Jaho and Soghomonyan each sang an aria from the later version, and already the orchestration felt richer overall, even though in what we did hear we were hardly being offered the best points for comparison.
The first half of the concert featured Bizet’s L’Arlésienne Suite No. 1 (1872), which he devised from the music he wrote for Alphonse Daudet’s eponymous play, and the ballet music Verdi composed in 1865 for his Paris revision of Macbeth, which is cut from most performances today. Here, the playing showed such exquisite attention to detail that it would have made many orchestras that still delivered good performances of the works seem lazy in comparison. For example, in the opening Prélude to L’Arlésienne one was struck by a sound that seemed so stark and strident in one respect, and yet was never harsh because the precision across the entire orchestra was so impeccable. A sense of perfect balance then continued to underlie the multitude of moods, colours and textures that were introduced throughout the piece.
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Opera Holland Park has recently announced that it will perform Le Villi during its 2020 season.