Friday 23 November 2018

Puccini premiere: Opera Rara gives the original version of Le Willis a rare outing

Puccini: Le Willis - Brian Mulligan, Arsen Soghomonyan, Ermonela Jaho, Sir Mark Elder & London Philharmonic  (Photo Russell Duncan)
Puccini: Le Willis - Brian Mulligan, Arsen Soghomonyan, Ermonela Jaho, Sir Mark Elder & London Philharmonic
(Photo Russell Duncan)
Puccini Le Willis; Ermonela Jaho, Brian Mulligan, Arsen Soghomonyan, Opera Rara Chorus, London Philharmonic Orchestra, Sir Mark Elder; Opera Rara at the Royal Festival Hall Reviewed by Ruth Hansford on 21 November 2018 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
The London premiere of the original version of Puccini's first opera

It is not often we get to hear a London première of a Puccini work. In fact, it even made it to the morning news bulletin (albeit on Radio 3). Puccini’s first opera, the one-act Le Willis of 1883 was, at the request of Ricordi’s publishers, expanded to a full-length opera and re-orchestrated to become Le Villi that has been performed since 1887. Sir Mark Elder conducted Le Willis with Ermonela Jaho, Brian Mulligan, Arsen Soghomonyan, the Opera Rara Chorus and the London Philharmonic Orchestra, in a programme which also included music by Bizet and Verdi, presented by Opera Rara at the Royal Festival Hall on 21 November 2018.

What we heard at the Festival Hall was the first outing of a new critical edition by Martin Deasy of the original version, with orchestration pared down to its earlier iteration, giving us a chance to hear how as an orchestrator and storyteller Puccini arrived on the scene fully formed at the age of 24. He was to improve his writing for the voice as his career developed – and when he found more voice-friendly librettists and allowed himself more time.

The middle of the hour-long piece has no singing at all – it was an extended “intermezzo sinfonico” that tells, wordlessly (though the poem printed in the programme was by the librettist Fontana), the story of what happens when the shallow tenor Roberto goes to Mainz: he is seduced by a siren and his beloved, Anna dies of a broken heart but comes back as one of the Willi of the title to haunt him and force him to dance to his death. There is no aria as such, but there are some stonking choruses (if we ignore the rather clumsy word underlay). The piece was composed at breakneck speed for a competition run by the publisher Sonzogno and, though it got nowhere in the competition, attracted the attention of Arrigo Boito at Ricordi’s who encouraged Puccini to re-work it, expand it and add a couple of showpiece arias for the soprano and the tenor.

The orchestra was for me the best part of the evening. The baritone Brian Mulligan and tenor (until last year a baritone) Arsen Soghomonyan were very similar in sound, which meant the father and the lover were not easily distinguished. Ermonela Jaho played her jilted character to the maximum, but I felt it wasn’t a natural fit for her voice as the orchestra drowned her out in the middle range (more Puccini's fault than Mark Elder's). we heard both the tenor and soprano arias as encores, and these were clearly more satisfying to sing.

The piece was fascinating in its own right, and I am sure the balance will be better in the forthcoming recording from Opera Rara.

Puccini was hailed as the new Bizet or Massenet the year after Le Willis. To set the scene we heard Bizet’s L’Arlésienne Suite no 1 in the first half – Elder asked for a driven, vibrato-less sound that was a perfect fit for Daudet’s tale of a jilted farmer driven to suicide. Then, to show how different Verdi and Puccini treated their supernatural themes, we had the Act III ballet music from Macbeth – rarely performed as part of the opera but wonderfully atmospheric with its low flute and high piccolo and an exhilarating sense that any minute it was going to fall apart.
Reviewed by Ruth Hansford
Puccini: Le Willis - Brian Mulligan, Arsen Soghomonyan, Ermonela Jaho, Sir Mark Elder & London Philharmonic  (Photo Russell Duncan)
Puccini: Le Willis - Brian Mulligan, Arsen Soghomonyan, Ermonela Jaho, Sir Mark Elder & London Philharmonic
(Photo Russell Duncan)
21st November 2018 Opera Rara at the Royal Festival Hall

Bizet L’Arlésienne Suite No. 1
Verdi Ballet music from MacbethPuccini Le Willis

Sir Mark Elder conductor
Ermonela Jaho soprano
Brian Mulligan baritone
Arsen Soghomonyan tenor
Opera Rara Chorus
London Philharmonic Orchestra

Elsewhere on this blog:
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  • A series of concentric circles: Aaron Holloway-Nahum and the Riot Ensemble  - interview
  • Auf Flügeln des Gesanges: Romantic songs and piano transcriptions from Christoph Prégardien & Cyprien Katsaris (★★★★★) - CD review
  • The English Concert in Baroque concertos  - (★★★★) CD review
  • Widening the audience: I chat to Christopher Glynn about his Schubert in English project - interview
  • Staging the unstageable: Britten's War Requiem at English National Opera (★★★★) - opera review
  • Rare Tchaikovsky and Smyth: an earlier version of the piano concerto and Smyth's large-scale mass at the Barbican  (★★★★) - concert review
  • Elgar, Finzi, Parry, Walton from a different angle: arrangements for brass septet  (★★★★) - CD review
  • Love & Prayer: Nadine Benjamin debut solo album (★★★★) - CD review
  • A sense of subtext: Joe Cutler's Elsewhereness on NMC (★★★★) - CD review
  • Otherwordly concerns: Anderswelt - Marlis Petersen and Camillo Radicke in late-Romantic lieder (★★★★) - CD review
  • Late genius and two sextets: Strauss, Haydn and Brahms at Conway Hall  (★★★½)  - concert review
  • Iconic but flawed: La Bayadère the Royal Ballet  - ballet review
  • Reformation Remainers: Musicians, zealots and loyalists in Tudor England at BREMF - concert review
  •  Home

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