Tuesday 24 September 2019

25-year-old Puccini's original thoughts revealed in this recording of the first version of his first opera Le Willis

Puccini: Le Willis - Opera Rara
Puccini Le Willis (1883); Ermonela Jaho, Arsen Soghomonyan, Brian Mulligan, London Philharmonic Orchestra, Sir Mark Elder; Opera Rara
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 24 September 2019 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
The first version of Puccini's first opera, rather different from its slightly better known revised form, reveals Puccini's remarkably precocious talent.

This disc from Opera Rara restores to the repertoire a valuable rarity, Puccini's first opera in its original version as Le Willis. Here recorded by Sir Mark Elder and the London Philharmonic Orchestra with Ermonela Jaho as Anna, Arsen Soghomonyan as Roberto and Brian Mulligan as Gulglielmo, with the Opera Rara chorus.

Puccini's first opera, if it is known at all, is best known as the two-act Le Villi [you can hear the two-act Le Villi on Lorin Maazel's recording with Renata Scotto and Placido Domingo] which was published by Ricordi, but in fact the original version of that opera was a shorter, one-act piece. This had been written for Sonzogno's 1883 competition (the one that Mascagni would win with Cavalleria Rusticana in 1889). Puccini was encouraged to enter the competition by his teacher, Ponchielli and it was Ponchielli who put him in contact with librettist Ferdinando Fontana.

It is Fontana who is key to the opera's rather distinctive form. Eight years older than Puccini and with around a dozen opera libretti to his credit, Fontana also had links to the older Scapiglatura movement (the shoeless ones), the consciously bohemian movement which sought to rejuvenate Italian culture. The young Arrigo Boito was a key member of the original movement, and in fact through Ponchielli the young Puccini would get to know a number of older members of the movement.
Puccini: Le Willis - Arsen Soghomonyan, Ermonela Jaho, Sir Mark Elder, London Philharmonic Orchestra in November 2018 (Photo Russell Duncan)
Puccini: Le Willis - Arsen Soghomonyan, Ermonela Jaho, Sir Mark Elder, London Philharmonic Orchestra
at the Royal Festival Hall in November 2018 (Photo Russell Duncan)

Fontana's writings on opera, quoted by Martin Deasy in his invaluable article in the CD booklet, include some, to us, slightly strange theorising which moves opera from the dramatic towards something rather more metaphysical with orchestral interludes with poems which would describe to the audience what was happening. And this is exactly what we have with Le Willis, the sung drama consists of the opening scene, where Roberto (Arsen Soghomonyan) has to go off to Munich and his beloved Anna (Ermonela Jaho) has had a dream about him abandonning her, and the final scene where the Willis are summoned by Anna's father Guglielmo (Brian Mulligan) and they, including the ghost of Anna, torment Roberto to death in revenge. The more dramatic middle section, where Roberto is seduced by a courtesan in Munich and Anna, abandonned, dies, is covered by the symphonic interlude (a nine minute piece in the middle), and in the libretto Opera Rara prints Fontana's two poems which go with the music and describe what is happening.

Deasy's article also sheds light on the curious shenanigins surrounding Puccini's opera and the competition.
The standard story is that Ponchielli encouraged Puccini to enter the competition, Puccini was late with his entry and it was badly written and it failed, despite Ponchielli being on the jury. After a performance of the opera organised by Fontana, it would be picked up by Ricordi and the rest, as they say, is history. Deasy points out that Ricordi's knowledge of and interaction with Puccini rather pre-dates the performance of Le Willis and he suggests that Puccini's 'failure' in the competition was engineered by Ponchielli and Ricordi, as Ricordi already had his eye on Puccini.

It was Martin Deasy who did the editorial work on this piece, unpicking the original Le Willis from the manuscript where Puccini had cannibalised the original opera to create Le Villi.

The opera itself is remarkable, not so much as a piece of operatic drama (its form is far to strange for that), but for the way it clearly sounds like Puccini. His operatic talent seems to have sprung fully formed and in terms of the orchestral writing and the cast of the melodic lines, this is clear Puccini. The music is full of fingerprints which remind you of later Puccini works. What needed to develop was his dramatic instinct, only after the failure of Puccini and Fontana's second opera, the neo-Wagnerian Edgar, would Puccini take interest in and control of the dramatic form of his libretti (often to the point of annoying his librettists severely). Puccini was 25 when he wrote Le Willis, but it would take until he was 38 in 1896 that he produced his first unqualified dramatic masterpiece, La Boheme.

The characters do not get that much chance to develop, and in Le Willis only Guglielmo gets anything like a solo with his aria invoking the Willis at the beginning of part two, powerfully delivered by Brian Mulligan. Arsen Soghomonyan makes a powerful and robust Roberto with Ermonela Jaho finely touching as the wronged Anna.

Not for the last time, Giulio Ricordi would take an active role in the development of one of Puccini's operas and it was he who specified the changes which transformed the one-act Le Willis into the two-act Le Villi. This process included composing solo arias for both Anna and Roberto, which are included as an appendix on the disc and provide powerful Puccinian solo moments for both Jaho and Soghomonyan (who gets a powerful ten-minute solo scene which would effectively transform the charater) , giving us a pointer of the Puccini to come.

This will never become a repertoire work, though you feel that an enterprising choreographer might be able to make a significant dance-drama from it. But this admirable disc gives us a chance to hear the early Puccini and wonder, in performances which give him the finest possible outing.

And the opera's name? Puccini referred to it as Le Willis in letters, but it was firmly Le Villi when published by Ricordi, so editor Martin Deasy has used the name Le Willis for the first version to differentiate it from the second, Le Villi. In either case, Italians would have pronounced the name the same.

Giacomo Puccini (1858-1924) - Le Willis (1883)
Anna - Ermonela Jaho (soprano)
Roberto - Arsen Soghomonyan (tenor)
Guglielmo - Brian Mulligan (baritone)
Opera Rara Chorus
London Philharmonic Orchestra
Sir Mark Elder (conductor)
Recorded November 2018
OPERA RARA ORC59 1CD [65.00]
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