Composers: Puccini
Compositions: Le Willis
Performers: Ermonela Jaho s, Arsen Soghomonyan t, London Philharmonic/Sir Mark Elder
Catalogue Number: Opera Rara 9293800592

Composed in haste for a competition of one-act operas held in 1883, Puccini’s Le Willis failed to even place. No matter, because it caught the attention of none other than Arrigo Boito, who was impressed enough to help see it staged and published. More commonly performed today in its two-act revision, retitled Le villi, this Opera Rara recording of performances that took place in 2018 uses a reconstruction by musicologist Martin Deasy. Balletomanes will be familiar with the story, which shares much of the same plot points as Giselle – an abandoned woman dies of a broken heart, her lover eventually driven to death by her ghost and a band of avenging spirits.

Although Le Willis was Puccini’s first opera – almost juvenilia considering the composer was but 24 – you can detect seeds of Manon Lescaut and even La Bohème planted in the score. His undeniable gift for detail, vivid orchestrations and emotional insight are already present, and it’s interesting to see how a composer who stuck so steadfastly to realist material for the rest of his career handles the supernatural.

Mark Elder, who recently stepped down as the company’s Artistic Director, draws a sensitive, sumptuous reading from the London Philharmonic Orchestra, a fitting cap on his consistently excellent Opera Rara catalogue. Their playing is more than matched in quality by the two principal singers, with Albanian soprano Ermonela Jaho especially impressive as the jilted Anna.

Bringing her usual commitment and intelligence to the role, she is every bit the naïve village girl in Act I, her pronouncements of love tender and touchingly apprehensive. Later transformed into an avenging fury, Jaho invests her character with a terrifyingly open, bruised quality underneath the rage. As her inconstant lover Roberto, Armenian tenor Arsen Soghomonyan brings similar commitment to the part, his baritonal timbre attractive and lending his character unexpected gravitas. Brian Mulligan provides strong support as Anna’s father, Guglielmo, and the Opera Rara Chorus are as splendid as ever. Definitely worth checking out.