Album Review: ‘Le Willis’

Puccini's first opera reveals his talent
October 18, 2019 Updated: October 22, 2019

Puccini’s first opera, if it is known at all, is known best as the two-act “Le Villi.” But, in fact, the original version of the opera was a shorter, one-act piece. Opera Rara restores this valuable rarity to the repertoire as recorded by Sir Mark Elder and the London Philharmonic Orchestra.

The one-act, called “Le Willis,” had been written for Edoardo 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, Amilcare Ponchielli, who put him in contact with the librettist Ferdinando Fontana.

Fontana was key to the opera’s rather distinctive form. Eight years older than Puccini and with around a dozen opera libretti to his credit, Fontana had links to the older Scapigliatura Milanese movement. The consciously bohemian movement sought to rejuvenate Italian culture.

Fontana’s writings on opera, quoted by Martin Deasy in his invaluable article in the CD booklet, include some, to us, slightly strange theorizing by the Scapigliatura that moves opera from the dramatic toward something more metaphysical: operas that contain orchestral interludes with poems, which would describe rather than enact some of the plot for the audience.

puccini's first opera-cd-cvr
The album cover for Puccini’s first opera.

‘The Willis’

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 his abandoning her. In the final scene, the Willis, or supernatural women, 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, abandoned, dies—is covered by the symphonic interlude (a nine-minute piece in the middle). Opera Rara prints Fontana’s two poems that went with the music and describe what is happening.

Puccini’s Talent

Deasy’s article also sheds light on the curious shenanigans surrounding Puccini’s opera and the competition. The standard story is that Ponchielli encouraged Puccini to enter the competition, but that Puccini’s entry was late, badly written, and failed, despite Ponchielli being on the jury. After a performance of the opera organized by Fontana, it would be picked up by the music publisher Giulio Ricordi, and the rest, as they say, is history.

Deasy points out that Ricordi’s knowledge of and interaction with Puccini rather predates the performance of “Le Willis.” Deasy suggests that Puccini’s failure in the competition was engineered by Ponchielli and Ricordi, as Ricordi already had his eye on Puccini.

It was Deasy who did the editorial work on this piece, unpacking the original “Le Willis” from the manuscript, which Puccini had cannibalized to create “Le Villi.”

The opera itself is remarkable, not so much as a piece of operatic drama (its form is far too strange for that), but for the way it clearly sounds like Puccini. His operatic talent seems to have sprung forth fully formed, and in terms of the orchestral writing and the cast of the melodic lines, this is clearly Puccini. The music is full of fingerprints that remind you of later Puccini works.

What Puccini later developed was his dramatic instinct. But only after the failure of Puccini and Fontana’s second opera, the neo-Wagnerian “Edgar,” would Puccini take interest in and control the dramatic form of his libretti (often to the point of severely annoying his librettists). Puccini was 25 when he wrote “Le Willis,” but only when he was 38 in 1896 did he produce his first unqualified dramatic masterpiece, “La Bohème.”

The Dramatic Shortcomings of ‘Le Willis’

Most characters in “Le Willis” do not get a chance to develop: Only Guglielmo has anything like a solo, with his aria invoking the Willis at the beginning of Part 2. It is here powerfully delivered by Brian Mulligan. Arsen Soghomonyan makes a powerful and robust Roberto, and Ermonela Jaho is touching as the wronged Anna.

As elsewhere, Giulio Ricordi took an active role in the development of Puccini’s opera. He specified changes that transformed the one-act “Le Willis” into the two-act “Le Villi” with additional solo arias for both Anna and Roberto. These are included as an appendix on the disc and provide powerful Puccinian solo moments for both Jaho and Soghomonyan (who gets a 10-minute solo scene that effectively transforms the character). These solos point to the Puccini to come.

“Le Willis” will never become a repertoire work, but this admirable disc, in performances that give the opera the finest possible outing, does give us a chance to hear early Puccini.

And the opera’s name? Puccini referred to it as “Le Willis” in letters, but it was firmly “Le Villi” when published by Ricordi. 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.

Robert Hugill is a composer, lecturer, journalist, and classical music blogger. He runs the classical music blog Planet Hugill, writes for the Opera Today website, and Opera Today and Opera magazines. He lectures and gives pre-concert talks on opera and classical music in London. As a composer, his disc of songs “Quickening” was issued by Navona Records in 2017. 

This article, edited for clarity and length, is reprinted with permission from Planet Hugill.

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