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

From Darkness into Light: Antoine Brumel’s Complete Lamentations of Jeremiah for Good Friday

As a musicologist, particularly when working in the field of historical documents, one is always hoping to discover that unknown score, letter, household account book - even a shopping list or scribbled memo - which will reveal much about the composition, performance or context of a musical work which might otherwise remain embedded within or behind the inscrutable walls of the past.

Time and Space: Songs by Holst and Vaughan Williams

New from Albion, Time and Space: Songs by Holst and Vaughan Williams, with Mary Bevan, Roderick Williams, William Vann and Jack Liebeck, highlighting the close personal relationship between the two composers.

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.

Liszt: O lieb! – Lieder and Mélodie

O Lieb! presents the lieder of Franz Liszt with a distinctive spark from Cyrille Dubois and Tristan Raës, from Aparté. Though young, Dubois is very highly regarded. His voice has a luminous natural elegance, ideal for the Mélodie and French operatic repertoire he does so well. With these settings by Franz Liszt, Dubois brings out the refinement and sophistication of Liszt’s approach to song.

The Academy of Ancient Music's superb recording of Handel's Brockes-Passion

The Academy of Ancient Music’s new release of Handel’s Brockes-Passion - recorded around the AAM's live performance at the Barbican Hall on the 300th anniversary of the first performance in 1719 - combines serious musicological and historical scholarship with vibrant musicianship and artistry.

Vaughan Williams: The Song of Love

From Albion, The Song of Love featuring songs by Ralph Vaughan Williams, with Kitty Whately, Roderick Williams and pianist William Vann. Albion is unique, treasured by Vaughan Williams devotees for rarely heard repertoire from the composer’s vast output, so don’t expect mass market commercial product. Albion recordings often highlight new perspectives.

A new recording of Henze’s Das Floß der Medusa

Henze’s Das Floß der Medusa is in some ways a work with a troubled and turbulent history. It is defined by the time in which it was written – 1968 – a period of student protest throughout central Europe. Its first performance was abandoned because the Hamburg chorus refused to perform under the Red Flag which had been placed on stage; and Henze himself decided he wouldn’t conduct it at all after police stormed the concert hall to remove protesters, among them the librettist Ernst Schnabel.

Berthold Goldschmidt: Beatrice Cenci, Bregenzer Festspiele

Berthold Goldschmidt’s Beatrice Cenci at last on DVD, from the Bregenzer Festspiele in 2018, with Johannes Debus conducting the Wiener Symphoniker, directed by Johannes Erath, and sung in German translation.

Sandrine Piau: Si j’ai aimé

Sandrine Piau and Le Concert de la Loge (Julien Chauvin), Si j’ai aimé, an eclectic collection of mélodies demonstrating the riches of French orchestral song. Berlioz, Duparc and Massenet are included, but also Saint-Saëns, Charles Bordes, Gabriel Pierné, Théodore Dubois, Louis Vierne and Benjamin Godard.

The VOCES8 Foundation is launched at St Anne & St Agnes

Where might you hear medieval monophony by the late 12th-century French composer Pérotin, Renaissance polyphony by William Byrd, a vocal arrangement of the stirring theme from Sibelius’s tone poem Finlandia, alongside a newly commissioned work, ‘Vertue’ (2019) by Jonathan Dove, followed by an arrangement of the Irish folksong ‘Danny Boy’ and a snappy rendition of Antonio Carlos Jobim’s ‘One Note Samba’ arr. for eight voices by Naomi Crellin, all within 90 minutes?

Gerald Finzi Choral Works

From Hyperion, Gerald Finzi choral works with the Choir of Trinity College, Cambridge, conducted by Stephen Layton. An impressive Magnificat (1952) sets the tone.

Herbert Howells: Choir of King’s College, Cambridge

The Choir of King’s College, Cambridge has played a role in the evolution of British music. This recording honours this heritage and Stephen Cleobury’s contribution in particular by focusing on Herbert Howells, who transformed the British liturgical repertoire in the 20th century.

Mieczysław Weinberg: Symphony no. 21 (“Kaddish”)

Mieczysław Weinberg witnessed the Holocaust firsthand. He survived, though millions didn’t, including his family. His Symphony no. 21 “Kaddish” (Op. 152) is a deeply personal statement. Yet its musical qualities are such that they make it a milestone in modern repertoire.

Kenshiro Sakairi and the Tokyo Juventus Philharmonic in Mahler’s Eighth

Although some works by a number of composers have had to wait uncommonly lengthy periods of time to receive Japanese premieres - one thinks of both Mozart’s Jupiter and Beethoven’s Fifth (1918), Handel’s Messiah (1929), Wagner’s Parsifal (1967), Berlioz’s Roméo et Juliette (1966) and even Bruckner’s Eighth (1959, given its premiere by Herbert von Karajan) - Mahler might be considered to have fared somewhat better.

Lise Davidsen sings Wagner and Strauss

Superlatives to describe Lise Davidsen’s voice have been piling up since she won Placido Domingo’s 2015 Operalia competition, blowing everyone away. She has been called “a voice in a million” and “the new Kirsten Flagstad.”

Nicky Spence and Julius Drake record The Diary of One Who Disappeared

From Hyperion comes a particularly fine account of Leoš Janáček’s song cycle The Diary of One Who Disappeared. Handsome-voiced Nicky Spence is the young peasant who loses his head over an alluring gypsy and is never seen again.

Jean Sibelius: Kullervo

Why did Jean Sibelius suppress Kullervo (Op. 7, 1892)? There are many theories why he didn’t allow it to be heard after its initial performances, though he referred to it fondly in private. This new recording, from Hyperion with Thomas Dausgaard conducting the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, soloists Helena Juntunen and Benjamin Appl and the Lund Male Chorus, is a good new addition to the ever-growing awareness of Kullervo, on recording and in live performance.

Mahler: Titan, Eine Tondichtung in Symphonieform – François-Xavier Roth, Les Siècles

Not the familiar version of Mahler's Symphony no 1, but the “real” Mahler Titan at last, as it might have sounded in Mahler's time! François-Xavier Roth and Les Siècles present the symphony in its second version, based on the Hamburg/Weimar performances of 1893-94. This score is edited by Reinhold Kubik and Stephen E.Hefling for Universal Edition AG. Wien.

Verdi: Messa da Requiem - Staatskapelle Dresden, Christian Thielemann (Profil)

It has often been the case that the destruction wrought by wars, especially the Second World War, has been treated unevenly by composers. Theodor Adorno’s often quoted remark, from his essay Prisms, that “to write poetry after Auschwitz would be barbaric” - if widely misinterpreted - is limited by its scope and in a somewhat profound way composers have looked on the events of World War II in the same way.

Matthias Goerne: Schumann – Liederkreis, op 24 & Kernerlieder

New from Harmonia Mundi, Matthias Goerne and Lief Ove Andsnes: Robert Schumann – Liederkreis, op 24 and Kernerlieder. Goerne and Andsnes have a partnership based on many years of working together, which makes this new release, originally recorded in late 2018, well worth hearing.

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):