Subscribe to
Opera Today

Receive articles and news via RSS feeds or email subscription.


facebook-icon.png


twitter_logo[1].gif



Plumbago_9780993198359_1.png

9780521746472.png

0810888688.gif

0810882728.gif

Recently in Recordings

John F. Larchet's Complete Songs and Airs: in conversation with Niall Kinsella

Dublin-born John F. Larchet (1884-1967) might well be described as the father of post-Independence Irish music, given the immense influenced that he had upon Irish musical life during the first half of the 20th century - as a composer, musician, administrator and teacher.

Haddon Hall: 'Sullivan sans Gilbert' does not disappoint thanks to the BBC Concert Orchestra and John Andrews

The English Civil War is raging. The daughter of a Puritan aristocrat has fallen in love with the son of a Royalist supporter of the House of Stuart. Will love triumph over political expediency and religious dogma?

Beethoven’s Choral Symphony and Choral Fantasy from Harmonia Mundi

Beethoven Symphony no 9 (the Choral Symphony) in D minor, Op. 125, and the Choral Fantasy in C minor, Op. 80 with soloist Kristian Bezuidenhout, Pablo Heras-Casado conducting the Freiburger Barockorchester, new from Harmonia Mundi.

Taking Risks with Barbara Hannigan

A Louise Brooks look-a-like, in bobbed black wig and floor-sweeping leather trench-coat, cheeks purple-rouged and eyes shadowed in black, Barbara Hannigan issues taut gestures which elicit fire-cracker punch from the Mahler Chamber Orchestra.

Alfredo Piatti: The Operatic Fantasies (Vol.2) - in conversation with Adrian Bradbury

‘Signor Piatti in a fantasia on themes from Beatrice di Tenda had also his triumph. Difficulties, declared to be insuperable, were vanquished by him with consummate skill and precision. He certainly is amazing, his tone magnificent, and his style excellent. His resources appear to be inexhaustible; and altogether for variety, it is the greatest specimen of violoncello playing that has been heard in this country.’

Those Blue Remembered Hills: Roderick Williams sings Gurney and Howells

Baritone Roderick Williams seems to have been a pretty constant ‘companion’, on my laptop screen and through my stereo speakers, during the past few ‘lock-down’ months.

Bruno Ganz and Kirill Gerstein almost rescue Strauss’s Enoch Arden

Melodramas can be a difficult genre for composers. Before Richard Strauss’s Enoch Arden the concept of the melodrama was its compact size – Weber’s Wolf’s Glen scene in Der Freischütz, Georg Benda’s Ariadne auf Naxos and Medea or even Leonore’s grave scene in Beethoven’s Fidelio.

Francisco Valls' Missa Regalis: The Choir of Keble College Oxford and the AAM

In the annals of musical controversies, the Missa Scala Aretina debate does not have the notoriety of the Querelle des Bouffons, the Monteverdi-Artusi spat, or the audience-shocking premiere of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring.

Two song cycles by Sir Arthur Somervell: Roderick Williams and Susie Allan

Robert Browning, Lord Alfred Tennyson, Charles Kingsley, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, A.E. Housman … the list of those whose work Sir Arthur Somervell (1863-1937) set to music, in his five song-cycles, reads like a roll call of Victorian poetry - excepting the Edwardian Housman.

Roger Quilter: The Complete Quilter Songbook, Vol. 3

Mark Stone and Stephen Barlow present Volume 3 in their series The Complete Roger Quilter Songbook, on Stone Records.

Richard Danielpour – The Passion of Yeshua

A contemporary telling of the Passion story which uses texts from both the Christian and the Jewish traditions to create a very different viewpoint.

Les Talens Lyriques: 18th-century Neapolitan sacred works

In 1770, during an extended tour of France and Italy to observe the ‘present state of music’ in those two countries, the English historian, critic and composer Charles Burney spent a month in Naples - a city which he noted (in The Present State of Music in France and Italy (1771)) ‘has so long been regarded as the centre of harmony, and the fountain from whence genius, taste, and learning, have flowed to every other part of Europe.’

Herbert Howells: Missa Sabrinensis revealed in its true glory

At last, Herbert Howells’s Missa Sabrinensis (1954) with David Hill conducting the Bach Choir, with whom David Willcocks performed the piece at the Royal Festival Hall in 1982. Willcocks commissioned this Mass for the Three Choirs Festival in Worcester in 1954, when Howells himself conducted the premiere.

Le Banquet Céleste: Stradella's San Giovanni Battista

The life of Alessandro Stradella was characterised by turbulence, adventure and amorous escapades worthy of an opera libretto. Indeed, at least seven composers have turned episodes from the 17th-century Italian composer’s colourful life into operatic form, the best known being Flotow whose three-act comic opera based on the Lothario’s misadventures was first staged in Hamburg in 1844.

Ethel Smyth: Songs and Ballads - a new recording from SOMM

In 1877, Ethel Smyth, aged just nineteen, travelled to Leipzig to begin her studies at the German town’s Music Conservatory, having finally worn down the resistance of her father, General J.H. Smyth.

Wagner: Excerpts from Der Ring des Niebelungen, NHK Symphony Orchestra, Paavo Järvi, RCA-Sony

This new recording of excerpts from Wagner’s Der Ring des Niebelungen is quite exceptional - and very unusual for this kind of disc. The words might be missing, but the fact they are proves to have rather the opposite effect. It is one of the most operatic of orchestral Wagner discs I have come across.

Wagner: Die Walküre, Symphonieorchester Des Bayerischen Rundfunks, Simon Rattle, BR Klassik

Simon Rattle has never particularly struck me as a complex conductor. He is not, for example, like Furtwängler, Maderna, Boulez or Sinopoli - all of whom brought a breadth of learning and a knowledge of composition to bear on what they conducted.

Dvořák Requiem, Jakub Hrůša in memoriam Jiří Bělohlávek

Antonín Dvořák Requiem op.89 (1890) with Jakub Hrůša conducting the Prague Philharmonic Orchestra. The Requiem was one of the last concerts Jiří Bělohlávek conducted before his death and he had been planning to record it as part of his outstanding series for Decca.

Schumann Symphonies, influenced by song

John Eliot Gardiner's Schumann series with the London Symphony Orchestra, demonstrate the how Schumann’s Lieder and piano music influenced his approach to symphonic form and his interests in music drama.

Unusual and beautiful: Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla conducts the music of Raminta Šerkšnytė

Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla conducts the music of Raminta Šerkšnytė with the Kremerata Baltica, in this new release from Deutsche Grammophon.

OPERA TODAY ARCHIVES »

Recordings

Opera Rara ORC59
20 Oct 2019

Puccini's Le Willis: a fine new recording from Opera Rara

The 23-year-old Giacomo Puccini was still three months from the end of his studies at the Conservatoire in Milan when, in April 1883, he spotted an announcement of a competition for a one-act opera in Il teatro illustrato, a journal was published by Edoardo Sonzogno, the Italian publisher of Bizet's Carmen.

Puccini: Le Willis

Ermonela Jaho (Anna), Arsen Soghomonyan (Roberto), Brian Mulligan (Guglielmo), London Philharmonic Orchestra, Opera Rara Chorus, conducted by Sir Mark Elder

Opera Rara ORC59 [CD]

£14.99  Click to buy

Puccini’s composition teacher, Amilcare Ponchielli, found him a librettist, the young journalist and playwright, Ferdinando Fontana, who was willing to furnish him with a plot for a meagre fee. Puccini seems to have been delighted with it, writing to his mother in August 1883, ‘It should be a good little subject, one that I like very much indeed, as it will mean working quite a lot in the symphonic descriptive genre, and that will suit me very well, because I think I can succeed in it.’ [1]

However, despite Ponchielli’s presence on the prize jury, Puccini’s opera, titled Le Willis, did not even garner an ‘honourable mention’. Subsequently, friends of the composer, among them one Boito Arrigo raised sufficient subscription funds to stage a performance at the Teatro Dal Verme in Milan on 31 May 1884. Julian Budden reports that the orchestra included several students from the Conservatory, including Pietro Mascagni on the double bass. The performance was such a success that Antonio Gramola, the critic of Il Corriere della Sera, proclaimed: ‘We honestly believe that Puccini could be the composer for whom Italy has been waiting a long time.’

Ricordi, presumably prompted by Ponchielli, purchased the score and set about arranging a performance in Turin to open the 1884-85 Carnival season, persuading Puccini to expand the opera into two acts. The composer added a cavatina for Anna (‘Se come voi piccina’); an intermezzo (‘L’abbandono’); a dramatic ‘scena’ for Roberto; and a reprise of the duet ‘Tu dell’infanzia mia’ in the finale ultimo, interwoven with fragments of ‘L’abbandono’. The revised work, Le Villi, was subtitled ‘opera-ballo in due atti’. It was not a great success. Nor was a subsequent revival in Milan on 24 January 1885 which brought further additions which were, with other modifications, included in the editions of the opera that were published in 1888 and 1892.

No more was heard of the one-act Le Willis. Until, that is, Opera Rara presented a concert performance of the opera at the Royal Festival Hall in November 2018, in which Sir Mark Elder conducted a fine trio of soloists - Ermonela Jaho (Anna), Arsen Soghomonyan (Roberto) and Brian Mulligan (Guglielmo) - alongside the London Philharmonic Orchestra and the Opera Rara Chorus (as mountain folk, Willis and Spirits) in the modern-day première, utilising a new critical edition prepared by musicologist Martin Deasy. Now, Opera Rara have released a world première studio recording of the Le Willis, made shortly after that live performance.

The starting point for Fontana’s libretto was the short story, ‘Les Willis’, by the French novelist Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr, which also formed the basis for Adolphe Adam’s ballet, Giselle. But, Fontana gave the original legend of Le Vila - the spirits of young girls who have died of grief after being betrayed by their beloveds - a few grim twists.

The tale is set in the Black Forest, where we find Roberto and Anna celebrating their engagement, though Anna is forlorn as Roberto must travel to Mainz to collect the inheritance of his deceased aunt. Despite his vow to be eternally faithful, when he is in Mainz Roberto is seduced by a ‘siren’ who lures him to ‘obscene orgies’ and robs him, leaving him penniless. Anna dies of a broken heart and is transformed into a Willi, who, the legend tells, force their deserters to dance to their deaths. Guglielmo, bereft and distraught, asks the Willis to avenge his daughter’s death. When Roberto returns to the forest, Anna’s spirit appears and sings of her suffering. He asks for forgiveness but - in contrast to Giselle where the young village maiden’s love sustains the fickle lord of the manor through his ordeal, until he is saved by the midnight bell - Roberto is shown no such mercy and Anna orders the Willis to punish his dalliance with their dance of death.

Le Willis is a strange, hybrid work, lasting less than an hour but incorporating dances which are woven into the action and two brief passages of declaimed poetry to cover ‘gaps’ in the drama (and during which Anna’s body is seen, behind a gauze curtain, being borne across the stage to the accompaniment of an unseen chorus). Budden suggests that the integration of different genres is characteristic of the contemporary ‘scapigliatura’ movement, whose members rebelled against accepted artistic and even moral conventions - something which Deasy explores further in his informative liner book essay, ‘Freshness of fantasy and phrases that touch the heart: the story of Puccini’s Le Willis’.

Sir Mark Elder is comfortably at home in this repertory and inspires energy and vibrancy from the London Philharmonic Orchestra, whose soulful upwellings and surges repeatedly raise the emotional temperature with blazes of colour, and the Opera Rara Chorus. The mountain folk in the Introductory Chorus are hearty of voice and light on their feet. Puccini’s score may be the work of a young man in his twenties, and the sequential melodic build-ups may be rather perfunctory lyrical effusions, but the sheen of the LPO strings draws our attention to the evidence that Puccini’s mature voice was already burgeoning beautifully. There is delicacy too, as when woodwind wisps unfold at the start of the Preludio, the clarinet curls, sleepy horn birdcalls and winding bassoon conjuring the mysteries and myths of the Black Forest. The orchestral interlude which follows Roberto’s departure for Mainz is similarly evocative - first, of the lovers’ innocence and passion; then, of the wildness of the ‘lewd orgies’ into which Roberto is enticed; and finally, of the febrile frenzy of the whirling Willis who dance in demonic anticipation of Roberto’s return to the forest.

Fragile intensity is one of Ermonela Jaho trademarks (see Leoncavallo and La traviata) and this allying of the vulnerable and the feverish is evident from the first when Anna tells, in her opening duet with Roberto, of a mind troubled by foreboding. When she appears as a Willi before the repentant Roberto, Jaho’s stirring vocalism is the very representation of both Anna’s fearsomeness and his terror. Even though we barely have time to ‘get to know’ Anna, Jaho makes the innocent girl’s memories of the purity of her love and the agony of her heart’s suffering utterly convincing.

As Roberto, Arsen Soghomonyan offers plentiful throbbing Italianate ardour, as when reassuring Anna of his devotion, but is a little strained at the top, though this is not unfitting in the dramatic context. Roberto’s plea to Guglielmo for his blessing, on the eve of Roberto’s departure, is earnest. Brian Mulligan captures Guglielmo’s geniality and warmth in the prayer he offers, which is firm of resolve and faith, and later communicates the bereaved father’s wrenching grief, aided by dark churnings and thudding anger in the lower strings, insisting that Roberto’s guilt must be avenged.

At the Festival Hall in November last year, some of Puccini’s later additions were performed as encores, following the final duet for Anna and Roberto, and they are included in the recording as an appendix. Jaho’s aria ‘Se come voi piccina’ - sung as she puts flowers in Roberto’s suitcase, futilely imagining the petals will not fade and thus will keep his memory of his love alive - is impassioned and sincere. And, in this more expansive vocal number we can hear how Puccini winds together the strings and voice while using the woodwind as coloristic strokes of his emotive paintbrush. Similarly, the broader canvas allows Soghomonyan to inhabit his character more fully and sweep through a range of emotions; he’s at his best in ‘Torna ai felici’ where Roberto’s heart-wracking regret is deepened by the oboe’s nudging reminders of his loss. Again, Puccini’s orchestration makes it mark, the interaction between horns and voice adding urgency of feeling.

It’s hard to imagine the one-act Le Willis being staged: it’s not surprising that Puccini felt bound to extend the work, for, with the bulk of the action ‘represented’ by the orchestral interlude and ballet in the centre it feels rather like a sandwich without its dramatic filling. But, Puccini’s score is rich and rousing. Opera Rara’s recording is a treat for both Puccini aficionados and all lovers of a stirring tale and fine music, well sung and well played.

Claire Seymour



[1] See Julian Budden, ‘The genesis and literary source of Giacomo Puccini's first opera’ in Cambridge Opera Journal, 1(1) (1989): 79-85.

Send to a friend

Send a link to this article to a friend with an optional message.

Friend's Email Address: (required)

Your Email Address: (required)

Message (optional):