Wednesday 7 November 2018

All he wanted to do was make people cry

Puccini: Le Villi - Original 1884 advertisement in Gazzetta Musicale di Milano
Puccini: Le Villi - Original 1884 advertisement
in Gazzetta Musicale di Milano
In the early days of the unified Italy there were three big publishers of operas: Ricordi had the Italian operas, Lucca had the French operas and Wagner, Sonzogno had the one-act operas, and in late 1883 ran a competition for a new work.

A 20-year-old Puccini submitted Le Villi, meeting the deadline by the skin of his teeth but didn’t even get a mention in dispatches – possibly because his handwriting was illegible, the judges may not have given it a second look. But Ricordi noticed Puccini and encouraged him to expand the one-acter into a two-act opera with showpiece arias for the soprano and tenor, before going on to commission Edgar with the same librettist, Ferdinando Fontana.

Opera Rara, who have built their reputation on unearthing the bel canto repertoire, are currently recording the original one-act version then putting on a concert version in the Royal Festival Hall on Wednesday 21st November. The first half of the evening will feature Bizet and Verdi (the Witch ballet from Macbeth). On 5t November, Sir Mark Elder and Roger Parker gave an Insight Evening which focused on Puccini's Le Villi.

Le Villi are fairies or witches – spirits of young girls who have died before their wedding night. They have a long heritage in central European mythology, with Lehár’s Vilja and Alphonse Adam’s Giselle among the more famous uses. In Puccini’s opera, they are the ghosts of Anna, in love with and loved by the tenor Roberto until he goes off to Mainz in search of adventure, having been seduced by a siren. Anna dies of a broken heart and then comes back to haunt the irresponsible tenor.

At 20 years old, Puccini already had his own voice. There is no Verdi in there. By now Verdi was out of fashion anyway. There is French influence rather than Italian, and of course there is some Wagner in there too. Even if you have never heard a note of Le Villi you will know at once that it is Puccini. At the Insight evening we were treated to Sir Mark Elder octave-surfing to demonstrate the gorgeous arias and the thick (overly thick?) orchestration which, he says, represents a challenge in a live performance. Mics and balancers can work miracles but live Italian opera requires a dry acoustic so you can hear the words.

We have the spookiness of the Black Forest, the newly minted tunes that, by the time they become an aria, feel as though we have known them for ever. Even at the 20, Puccini is the master of manipulation: “all he ever wanted to do was make people cry”. With a cast that includes Ermonela Jaho on 21st November, it will be hard not to.
By Ruth Hansford

Opera Rara presents Puccini's Le Villi at the Royal Festival Hall on 21 November 2018, Sir Mark Elder conducts the Opera Rara Chorus, London Philharmonic Orchestra with soloists Ermonela Jaho, Brian Mulligan, and Arsen Soghomonyan. Full details from the Southbank Centre website.

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