Le Villi (or Les Willis or The Fairies) – Puccini – Royal Festival Hall
Giacomo Puccini’s first staged work was the one act opera ‘Les Willis’ based on a short story by Jean Baptiste-Karr. The story tells the tale of the love between Anna and Roberto. Roberto is enchanted away from Anna by another and Anna dies of a broken heart. Her father calls upon the ‘Villi’ to take vengeance and the Fairies make Roberto dance until he dies of exhaustion. This one act opera was written for a competition, but politics played and it did not get even an honourable mention. However, Puccini’s work was heard by Ricordi, who immediately recognised its outstanding qualities and he published the work.
Puccini’s supporters, including Boito, raised sufficient funds for its premiere in 1884. It was an immense success with 18 curtain calls! However, on Ricordi’s insistence Puccini expanded the one act version to a two act opera. Whilst this is not an opera that is often performed, when it is, it is normally the two act version that is staged. Opera Rara gave the UK premiere of the original one act performance with the London Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Sir Mark Elder. The Opera Rara Chorus provided a very fulsome rendition of the crowd scenes. Elder’s extraordinary care and attention to the music made for an outstanding evening.
It was an extraordinary evening. There were so many insights into Puccini’s future opera work and you could hear strains of Manon Lescaut and Fanciulla in the musical lines. The brisk pace of the prelude with strings sounding at their tautest was a joyous start to this work and it was clear with the ample orchestration that this was a substantial work in its own right.
The American baritone, Brian Mulligan, sung the role of Anna’s father, Guglielmo. He has an impressive quality baritone sound, which was particularly prevalent in his aria at the death of his daughter. His daughter, Anna, was sung by the impressive Ermonela Jaho, whose voice was substantial in the higher register, although occasionally at the expense of her middle sound. She has a wonderful ability to float notes allowing the audience to enjoy a full expression of her role. She seemed to know and enjoy every bar of the music.
But the voice of the night belonged to the outstanding Armenian tenor of Arsen Soghomonyan, who sang the villain, Roberto. In his mid-30’s this is a voice of incredible quality, producing one of the best tenor premieres heard in London since Jonas Kaufman came to perform.
A joyous night with hearty congratulations to Opera Rara for another great success.