Puccini’s First Opera’s First Version: Le Villi (The Willis)

Review by: Robert Levine


Artistic Quality: 8

Sound Quality: 8

This is not only a rare recording of Puccini’s first opera, it is the first version of his first opera, never before recorded. It dates from 1884; it was revised after Manon Lescaut and La bohème, at which point Puccini changed its title to Le villi. The original version is barely an opera; 11 of its scant 45 minutes are orchestral and it is correctly referred to as an opera-ballet.

The plot: Anna and Robert are engaged, with the blessing of Anna’s father Guglielmo. Before the wedding, Robert has to go away, where he falls in love with a courtesan; Anna dies of a broken heart and is turned into a Willi, a supernatural, floating, swimming sprite. Legend tells that a man who jilts a Willi will be forced to dance until he dies. Guglielmo asks the Willis to avenge Anna; when Robert returns, though he begs forgiveness, Anna compels him to dance til he drops.

In the original, neither Anna nor Robert has an aria; Puccini fixed this in the revision, and so has conductor Mark Elder, who includes them as an appendix. Good thing, too—the opera is really a torso in which anything interesting happens offstage and is programmatically depicted in a stunningly orchestrated Intermezzo. Only a nice mini-duet for the still-together lovers, a handsome first finale (a prayer for Robert as he leaves), and an aria for Guglielmo catch the ear. But the additional arias are gorgeous and stop this set from being merely a curiosity.

Ermonela Jaho is a fine singer; girlish in delivery at the start, wild in the finale. She possesses a nice vibrato that adds warmth, and her “extra” aria allows her to shine. The casting of the two men is odd: Arsen Saghomonyan as Robert has a big, rich tenor and the fact that he started as a baritone is evident, and Brian Mulligan’s Guglielmo offers a bright baritone that might be mistaken for a dramatic tenor: at times they sound too much alike. Mulligan can’t muster the rage before his aria, but sings the aria itself with feeling. Saghomonyan impresses throughout and is particularly stunning in “Torna ai felice di”, his appended aria, where his exciting upper register is on display.

Mark Elder keeps the work together, playing the heck out of the Intermezzo and caring for the singers, and the LPO plays beautifully. I couldn’t help noticing that Jaho’s voice was not front-and-center as the others’—an engineering quirk?

This is a worthwhile recording, but Placido Domingo and Renata Scotto, on a 40-year-old Sony recording, is the way to go.

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Recording Details:

Reference Recording: Scotto/Domingo (Sony)

  • Brian Mulligan (baritone); Ermonela Jaho (soprano); Arsen Saghomonyan (tenor)
  • London Philharmonic Orchestra, Mark Elder

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