The clue is in the record label's name: rare opera. Opera Rara has long been known for not only reviving lost operatic gems, but also polishing them so they glow with life again. Most music-lovers know Puccini through his "hits" of La bohème, Tosca, Madama Butterfly and the suchlike. Meet Le Willis, based on Alphonse Karr's 1852 short story, of that name. Here we are in a world where, when jilted lovers die of grief, as they do routinely in opera (they even more frequently threaten to), they are transfomed into evil dancing spectres who take revenge on those who spurned them. This is the basic concept that forms the basis of Puccini's short opera.
Written in 1883, this is a work of ardent youth. The score was written for, and entered into, a competition, but Puccini's piece failed to excite; the premiere did take place soon after though, and to some success. Although short and fitting on one disc, it includes an "Intermezzo sinfonico", a Pregheira (a prayer - here a reworking of an even earlier Salve Regina by Puccini), plus duets and arias of real beauty and skill. Listening to this new performance, under the expert guidance of Sir Mark Elder, the score sparkles, containing assured choruses and a great dramatic sweep. It seems inconceivable this comes from so early in Puccini's career (he was born in 1858).
The world of fairy tale is not one that one immediately associates with the verismo of Puccini (a form of opera that focused on grittily real emotions: Tosca, Tabarro, Madama Butterfly ...), but this is pure fairytale. The characters Roberto and Anna are betrothed, but on a trip to Mainz, Roberto is seduced and forgets about Anna, who then dies of a broken heart, only to return as a Willi. When Anna appears to Roberto, despite his pleas for forgiveness, she forces him to dance until death, the traditional mode - luckily for anyone setting this musically - of enforcing death on an errant lover.
A celebratory chorus of mountain folk opens the opera (after a short orchestral Prelude), the Opera Rara chorus on rare form here:
The prayer mentioned above is sometimes excerpted: the Guglielmo here is the strong-voiced Brian Mulligan and he's joined by the Anna, Ermonela Jaho:
The London Philharmonic Orchestra is also at its best (note that some earlier printings of the booklet erroneously identified the orchestra as the "Royal Phlarmonic Orchestra"): the "Intermezzo Sinfonico" shows this in no uncertain terms. It is divided into two parts, individually titled. Firstly, "L'abbandono":
... and secondly, "La tragenda":
When published by Ricordi, the announcement of publication came with the commission of a second opera to a libretto by Ferdinando Fontana, which would turn out to be Edgar of 1889. The revised two-act version of Le Willis is what became known as the "opera-ballet" Le Villi, and this recording includes Anna's Scene and Romance fom Act I of that piece (a charming meditation on flowers as communicators of love, which includes Roberto's catching her delivering a posy) and Roberto's Romance from Act II ("Scena drammatica e Romanza di Roberto"), with tenor Arsen Soghomonyan in enthusiastic form, in dialogue with a splendidly light chorus of disembodied spirits. These all appear as an appendix.
No lover of Italian opera should be without this; one is reminded of the revelations that came from Opera Rara's relatively recent Donizetti L'Ange di Nisida (again with Sir Mark at the helm). We should also make a special note of the singer of the main role of Anna, Ermonela Jaho, as her solo recital Anima Rara on Opera Rara, a tribute to the lyric soprano Rosina Storchio, is newly released (and deserves a seperate post: watch this space!). If you can't wait, the link for her new album is below. Also, there's taster excerpt on which, at the climax, you can catch Jaho in full flight in the famous "Un bel dì" (One Fine Day) from Madama Butterfly.