Puccini may eclipse Delius on this occasion, but it still creates a double thrill.
In 1883 Puccini wrote a one act opera, setting a libretto created by journalist Ferdinando Fontana, for a new competition run by Milanese publisher and impresario Edoardo Sonzogno. It got nowhere in the contest, while the winning entry has 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, 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. The first version, which has only ever been performed once since its premiere (by Opera Rara in 2018) is known as Le Willis, but the second and better known version is entitled Le Villi.
One of the connections in this double bill, in which both operas are tales of separation, reunion and revenge, is that neither piece got anywhere when entered into Sonzogno’s competition, with Delius’s Margot la Rouge failing to be shortlisted in the fourth and final one in 1901. Across the contests, only the winner of the second, Mascagni’s Cavalleria rusticana in 1889, has enjoyed continued success, which suggests that a losing work such as Margot, which was never even performed until 1983, is worthy of reappraisal as it could always be another Le Villi.
In the event, it proves not to be quite up to that standard, but it is certainly worth experiencing, especially when it is presented as well as in Martin Lloyd-Evans’ production. With a French libretto by Berthe Gaston-Danville, better known as Rosenval, the story tells of a rivalry between prostitutes Lili Béguin and Margot, who has red hair. Lili is angry and upset because her lover, known as L’Artiste, has taken up with Margot. When a group of soldiers enter the bar in Paris where the action is set one Sergeant Thibault thinks he recognises Margot. As they begin to talk, they both realise she is his former sweetheart, Marguerite, who disappeared suddenly five years ago. A jealous Lili alerts L’Artiste to the fact that Margot is with another male, and the confrontation that ensues has disastrous consequences for both men.
Takis’ set places the bar, which takes on the air of a rough wooden hut, centre stage. Surrounding it are ramshackle structures that suggest trees, but by appearing like even more dilapidated versions of the hut they feel disconcerting rather than reassuring. Virtually all of the action takes place in this one room, which feels like a pressure cooker where emotions can boil over, but the performance is really made by the exquisite attention to detail. When Margot and Thibault have their lengthy encounter, La Patronne helps Lili drown her sorrows in the background, while two Drinkers sleep behind them, only to be awoken when L’Artiste hurls a bottle. Tellingly, as the situation dawns on Margot her first reaction is to head to the bar, while when Lili leaves to inform L’Artiste she reveals a combination of running to reach him quickly and walking tall to signify her sense of triumph.
Several performers stand out, including Sarah Minns as Lili Béguin, Laura Woods as La Patronne, George von Bergen as the First Soldier, Anne Sophie Duprels as Margot and Samuel Sakker as Thibault, but the first among equals is Paul Carey Jones as L’Artiste. Fresh from his triumph as Der Wanderer in Siegfried for Longborough Festival Opera, his bass-baritone is as strong and assertive as ever, and in this far smaller role he does not ever have to worry about holding anything back.
It is questionable whether the story entirely works for an opera, and some of the vocal writing can feel a little bland, but at its best, such as during Margot and Thibault’s duet, it is highly interesting and appealing. The orchestration too is quite intriguing, and its strength comes across clearly in Andreas Luca Beraldo’s reduction as Francesco Cilluffo elicits excellent playing from the City of London Sinfonia.
Set in the Black Forest, Le Villi sees the villagers Roberto and Anna celebrate their engagement with Anna’s father Guglielmo and the entire community. Roberto, however, must go to Mainz before the ceremony, and Anna is terrified because 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. 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 escapes from 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.
“…it is certainly worth experiencing, especially when it is presented as well as in Martin Lloyd-Evans’ production”
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, derives from a Central European legend that was also used in Adolphe Adam’s ballet Giselle of 1841. However, while the basic theme is similar in both works, 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 directly deriving from social hierarchies arise here, although the wholesome country is contrasted with the corrupting city. More importantly, while in the ballet Giselle protects her erstwhile lover from the Villi (and it is actually the innocent man who suffers the most terrible fate) here her equivalent is the prime mover in ensuring he is danced to death.
The bar in Margot la Rouge becomes Guglielmo’s house in Le Villi and at the start of both operas it spins around to reveal Stephen Gadd, who plays him, with Anne Sophie Duprels, who sings both Margot and Anna. In the second opera she continues to sport the red hair that the part of Margot required, thus drawing further parallels between the two characters and suggesting that both stories consider what happens when daughters grow up.
While Le Villi ostensibly has two acts, its entire middle section, covering the siren’s tempting of Roberto, the death of Anna and the legend of the Villi, is told through an Intermezzo Sinfonico, with Puccini’s score featuring two poems (delivered here by Gadd as the father) 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 even Verdi warned that ‘inserting a symphony into an opera is not necessarily a good thing’. However, on a summer’s evening in 2022, the piece in this form comes across brilliantly for several reasons.
The first is simply that the music is extremely beautiful, and clearly recognisable as Puccini as there is sheer joy in the initial celebrations that involve the chorus (the Opera Holland Park Chorus on magnificent form), and an exceptionally emotional ending. 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. If there are at least times in Margot la Rouge when we might doubt the quality of Delius’s vocal writing, there is never a moment when we are not swept away by the brilliance of Puccini’s, especially in his composing for any combination of principals.
The Intermezzo Sinfonico does not feel like a ‘lull’ as it can do in concert, which often results in the impassioned ending that follows making the piece feel as if it is finishing just as it was getting going. This is attributable to the excellent staging, which sees the description of Anna’s demise accompanied by a scene in which all of the villagers visit her father to mourn her death. As they carry off her coffin there is some very telling human detail as they stumble and nearly drop it. Then we witness the Dance of the Villi, with Jami Reid-Quarrell’s choreography proving perfect for the occasion so that the momentum never flags and the experience becomes quite overwhelming.
In fact, one major reason for the evening’s success is the strength of the staging all round. There is a wonderful ‘coup’ when the Villi cross the length of Holland Park’s broad stage with their long veils dragging behind them so that by the time they have reached the other side these cover the entire floor. The ending is also made all the more poignant by having Anna and the Villi dance, spin and leap around Roberto while he remains relatively still. This only makes his fate feel even more horrific as his ‘frozen’ form emphasises how he has no means of escape.
Duprels repeats the magic as Anna, while Gadd, with his firm and secure baritone, is a class act as Guglielmo. Peter Auty gives a stirring performance as Roberto and if in his higher lines the very top notes feel just a little thinner, those that immediately surround them are especially impassioned. Once again Cilluffo and the City of London Sinfonia excel delivering Beraldo’s reduction of the score, and the result is an evening of immense enjoyment with a final hour of breathtaking brilliance.
• The matinee on 31 July is an Audio-described and Relaxed Performance.
• Opera Holland Park’s 2022 Season continues until 28 August. For full details of all events and tickets visit its website.