Le Villi

Giacomo Puccini, libretto by Ferdinando Fontana
Teatro Communale di Modena
Teatro Communale di Modena
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Le Villi Credit: Rolando Paolo Guerzoni

It was seeing a performance of Verdi’s Aida that made Puccini think about becoming a composer of operas. In 1880, he went to Milan to study composition. Le Villi successfully premièred in 1884. There were 18 curtain-calls.

The libretto is based on Les Willlis, a short story by Jean Baptiste-Karr. The opera is in two acts and lasts just over an hour. Cristina Pezzoli’s production, conducted by Pier Giorgio Morandi and choreographed by Fernando Melo, was recorded in Modena in 2018.

Roberto and Anna are celebrating their engagement. Roberto says he has to go to Meinz to collect his inheritance. Anna is convinced she will never see him again. She had a dream in which he was dead.

The whole chorus waving Roberto goodbye with their handkerchiefs absurdly early is a comic sight to behold. Two major events then happen offstage. Act 2 opens with an announcement by a narrator, not a singer, that Roberto has been having an affair with a siren and that Anna died of grief when he did not come back.

The narrator then has to remind audiences, who have not seen Adolphe Adam’s ballet Giselle, that the villi (les Willis) force unfaithful lovers to dance to death. The Willis are the ghosts of women, young virgins, who died before their wedding day. We then witness Anna’s burial in a snowy graveyard in mime.

Anna’s grief-stricken dad (Matteo Lippi) holds Roberto responsible for Anna’s death and wants revenge. Alberto Gazale’s Roberto has a fine aria expressing his remorse and terror.

Maria Pia Piscitelli is a bit on the mature side to be playing Anna. She is at her most maternal when she steps out of her grave, in her wedding dress, and, looking a bit like the formidable Margaret Dumont, declares, “I am no longer LOVE. I am REVENGE.”

The male spirits are, to all intents and purposes, naked. The villi have two faces, front and back; dressed all in white, they look like something out of a horror movie.

Roberto isn’t danced to death. The girls chase him round the graveyard, behaving as if they are going to debag him. (Memories of Buster Keaton being chased by hordes of bridesmaids in the 1925 silent movie Seven Chances came flooding back for me.) The siren, who seduced him, makes a very brief appearance and looks like a 1930s Hollywood floozie.

Le Villi is of interest primarily because it was Puccini’s first success and is not seen that often. Balletomanes will inevitably feel that Giselle tells its story so much better and is infinitely more dramatic and far more moving.

Reviewer: Robert Tanitch