Opera Ballo in Two Acts (Originally One) with Intermezzo.
Running Time: 68:45 minutes, or shorter*
NOTE:All information and pictures not directly by me are from the Wikipedia entry for Le Villi.
*Since this rarity is rather frequently performed, a seeming contradiction, I would suggest looking in on the different versions, some staged, some concert form, some no visuals of the listener’s choice. The video and the review will not line up. The review is of a production with Jose Cura in the mid-1990s, the video is of a concert performance but it includes number headings so it is easy to follow along. The time difference appears to be from conduction speed.
PLOT: A tenor from the Black Forest is seduced away from his soprano finance who then dies only to become a bloodthirsty spirit who dances him to death in revenge.
Act 1: 30 minutes.
0-Prelude, after some standard forest sounds it turns rather religious and mystical, not bad*. Two melodies, forest (A) and prayer (B), will repeat themselves a lot for the remainder of the show. This is followed by what can only literally be termed an “Evivva” chorus, very standard, also at first very boring if jumpy. It gets better around three minutes in when Guglielmo shows up and it turns into a dance number, but never to meriting a star. Hard to believe we are already nine minutes into this thing, Anna’s aria, has a weird east Asian tinge to it for some reason which reminds one of other, better, Puccini operas. It takes a long time to start up and to whined down. Not very memorable and by far the weakest of the solo numbers.
16-After some brief recitative, a duet for Roberto and Anna, starts off with theme A which is getting tiresome, some power around a minute and a quarter in but then back to A. Roberto has a little lilting bit about a minute later when he tells Anna not to doubt him (foolish) which is rather good if orchestrally weak, Anna takes up the theme less effectively (theme F for faith), better albeit patchy *.
24- After a rather Verdi sounding recitative leading up to the finale, too derivative for a star there is the Prayer. Led by Guglielmo, bringing back theme B (to return later), a rather striking little number **. It is very Verdian, but quite lovely. The finale is a noisy little symphony as Roberto goes off with a repeated come back from the religious theme.
Intermezzo: 10 minutes.
0: Divided into two parts of exactly five minutes each, the first consisting of music over narration coming a massive hole in the plot (Roberto is seduced in Mainz by a siren and the betrayed Anna dies of a broken heart) leading to her choral funerary sequence with female choral backing. Beautiful and sinister, with traces of the Villi theme (C) but returning to a lovely sounding pantomime. Perhaps too melodically charming for a funeral march but it is scenic **. Another theme, resilience? (D) bursts upon the scene like it is the Easter Hymn from Cavalleria Rusticana just to die away into a choral warning and then sweetness.
5: The narrator tells us about the Villi, female spirits who dance with cheating men until they die, then four minutes of the expanded theme C in a rather menacing, if brief, symphonic poem. Very Italianate and yet Germanic with the brass yet not really derivative either, rather stunning actually***.
Act 2: 29 minutes.
0: Some foreboding mood music, rather powerful, then bang, we are into Guglielmo’s aria, he curses Roberto for the death of Anna and implores the Villi for revenge then leading into a prayer before he goes back into his cabin in a rather affecting aria. This aria sounds like it is late Verdi, it is so derivative but so good as well **. The Villi answer in a surreal chorus before Roberto returns for a good recitative with their sinister theme constantly striking *.
8: The Aria, Roberto’s tour de force, brings down the house as can only happen in Italian opera, a classic, a jewel, the tension between terror and sheer lyrical beauty is utterly astounding ***.
13: Roberto has some powerful recitative, terror. The Villi penetrate with their dance like promise of death **.
16: Another aria, on the B theme, as Roberto pleads for pardon and the Villi promise him death **.
18: A brief intermezzo as Anna appears and declares his name like an enraged Valkyrie. She is no longer love, but death and revenge. Then some more music that sounds a lot like Mascagni’s Easter Prayer again. Anna gets a second aria probably to redeem her first, and it is better, based on the theme F from the love duet in act first, but it isn’t as good as what the men have just sung in this act *. It is also a little too girlish and only towards the end does it build up to any real sense of dramatic power and by this time Roberto has gotten in on the act and it is now a duet, which is rather good **.
24: The play out to the curtain, three and a half minutes of sheer musical terror, starting with male chorus (finally) joined by the Villi. They triumphally prance out in style to theme F then Villi C! They dance slowly at first and then sinisterly it rises and pounces, climax! Roberto is about to collapse, asking for mercy, Anna says nothing of the sort and the chorus singing out “hosanna” and the orchestra bang out the Villi theme in one last terrifying display of dramatic power **.
(Above: Set design for Act 2. Below: Title Page of Score.)
Le Villi is a mixed bag of the musically ultra-inspired and the dramatically inept. Puccini captures the terrifying Spector of the Willies very well, especially for a first timer opera composer. He also managed to do something even Verdi had difficulty doing and wrote a good bass aria. The tenor part, Roberto, is simply amazing both musically and in terms of characterisation, especially in his three aria sequences in the second act, but what about Anna? She seems to be the weakest link in the music and even in the plot and this makes her a rather unattractive heroine (if we can call her that) and by the end we love Roberto musically so much that it is with more than with just a little unease that for the listener he is not ultimately spared the last fatal dance. The first fifteen minutes after the brief prelude are the weakest, which is probably a good thing dramatically, but the main reason for this is a third-rate choral introduction which is okay, and a rather flimsy aria for the prima donna (not okay). Everything from the prayer at the end of act 1 to the final curtain is so good that is it hard to believe that Puccini wrote the first 20 minutes of this thing. It is so hard to like Anna as a character. She is incredibly two dimensional with her only character development being that she is a simpleton in the first act and a witch out for blood in the second. Oddly she ultimately comes off as much more wooden than her father Guglielmo who has much less to do and contributes far less to the plot. Her music is just so terrible in comparison to everything else going on in the show that it leaves one incredibly dissatisfied with her and even to some extent with the ending even though it is musically effective. It is the most thankless of all of Puccini’s soprano leads. The plot is thin, but effective, after all it is just only over an hour. The orchestral music, particularly the intermezzo (which here is more effective than the same device used later in Manon Lescaut) is wonderfully drawn out and the dance of the Villi is simply a milestone of Italian orchestral scoring. The narrator is a little odd since this is an opera but not too disruptive and covers a massive plot chunk rather quickly. Almost makes you wish that he could have written out Anna with the narration and gave the soprano role to the siren from Mainz! Le Villi demonstrates a potential dramatic power, but it is not yet at fruition. Ultimately it is a B with A patches and a C grade prima donna.