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Giacomo PUCCINI (1858-1924)
Le Villi - Opera in two acts (1883-84) [69:01]
Anna - Miriam Gauchi (soprano)
Roberto - Carlo Torriani (tenor)
Guglielmo - Antonio Stragapede (bass)
Debora Conti (narrator)
The Classique Chorus
Orkestra Nazzjonali/Joseph Debrincat
Requiem (arr. chamber orchestra by Joseph Debrincat) [5.20]
rec. live, courtyard of the Palace of the Grandmasters, Valletta, Malta, 16 June, 2008, in celebration of the 150th anniversary of the birth of Giacomo Puccini in Lucca, Tuscany, 1858.
Plus a separate DVD with documentary: Giacomo Puccini and Le Villi
CAMEO CLASSICS CC9040CD [74.21 + DVD: 25:00]

Briefly the story of Le Villi concerns the love between Anna and her fiancé Roberto. He is called to Mainz to collect an inheritance. He assures Anna of his fidelity but succumbs to the blandishments of a seductress and tarries. He forgets Anna who dies of grief. Eventually when he has lost all his money and the temptress has left him, he returns to the Black Forest where Le Villi – (the ghosts of spurned lovers – Anna amongst them) dance around him forcing him to join them until he drops dead exhausted.

Le Villi was Puccini’s first attempt at opera and it was originally created as a one act work. After a shaky start, and the good offices of his librettist, Ferdinando Fontana, and Fontana’s influential, wealthy friends, it was successfully staged. There was concern expressed about the nature of the work; about it being too symphonic in style. Described as an ‘opera-ballo’, it was considered by the cognoscenti – Verdi amongst them – to be an uneasy compromise containing too little song and too much orchestral dance music. Additionally there is the added curiosity of a narrator employed during the two considerable orchestral intermezzos – the latter containing probably the best known melody of the work in connection with the dance of the spirits. Later, Puccini’s music publishers, Ricordi, recognising the structural imbalance and no doubt realising a two act work would have better commercial prospects, persuaded him to re-cast Le Villi in two acts. Despite it being an early work there are within it pointers to Puccini’s expansive mature style.

Miriam Gauchi makes a splendidly spirited Anna, passionate in her love for the feckless Roberto then grief-stricken and shaken with fury in her Act II aria. Roberto is equally expressive: ardent in Act I and penniless and penitent in Act II while Antonio Stragapede as Anna’s father, Guglielmo, the head forester, is commanding and authoritative.

The Classique Chorus offers sterling support and so too does the Orchestra Nazzjonali although the brass section’s timbre is at times unattractive. The album booklet has a swift summary of Puccini’s life and an outline of the plot of Le Villi. The Le Villi track-list detail on its back page is scarcely adequate.

Additionally there is the addition of just one movement from Puccini’s short Requiem written in memory of Verdi.

A second disc - a DVD - is devoted to a presentation by Dr Simonetta Puccini, grand-daughter of Giacomo Puccini about Le Villi. It contains many archive photographs and film of the composer at leisure, hunting and motoring at his beloved home in Torre del Largo near Viareggio and in nearby Lucca. Confirmed Puccini admirers will no doubt recognise the places of interest in Lucca such as Puccini’s birthplace and the nearby magnificent façade of San Michele in Foro, just one of the town’s many fine Pisan-Romanesque churches.

A fascinating and worthy addition to the Puccini discography.

Ian Lace

Another review ...

Over the years Cameo Classics has been the champion of several neglected composers and we owe the label a huge debt of gratitude for bringing much of this music into the public domain. I have many of their releases and the majority are well worth searching out. Marketing the music of neglected composers is one thing but that’s a completely different kettle of fish to entering the competitive world of operatic recordings.

I am surprised to see this live version of Le Villi being issued by Cameo. The CD cover says that this is a 150th anniversary concert performance. This is the 150th anniversary of Puccini’s birth in 2008, I assume, but this isn’t explained in the booklet. The booklet contains a short essay about Puccini. Le Villi is certainly touched on but there is no depth or detail to the text which is rather disappointing for a commercial product.

The CD opens with Puccini’s Requiem arranged by the conductor of the concert, Joseph Debrincat. This is a five minute appetiser before the main event but I’m afraid that the live recording is utterly ruined, not by a restless audience, but by the endless chirping of birds. It’s one of the strangest things I’ve ever come across. The fact that this was a world premiere doesn’t really justify its release. The orchestra is nicely recorded but the chorus is marginally flat.

Le Villi is early, immature Puccini but has its moments and there are many hints of the great operas to come. The prelude is well played by the small orchestra and there is a good atmosphere to the sound. The first entry of the chorus is somewhat more convincing than their performance of the Requiem and the singing is lively enough if not especially polished. It’s a shame that those dreaded birds then come back with a vengeance but to their credit, the audience remains unobtrusive throughout. Miriam Gauci steals the show as Anna. What a fabulous voice she has. She recorded the beautiful aria Se come voi piccini io fossi with Rahbari on Naxos (8.550606) some years ago and it’s good to hear her in this live version. I can’t be very enthusiastic about the tenor, Carlo Torriani. His voice, as captured here, has a fast vibrato that is quite off-putting. The fluttering quality his voice possesses is unfortunate and when in duet with Ms Gauci the effect is most unappealing. There are also some patches of less than stellar intonation. The orchestral support is generally reliable but on a small scale. A bigger string sound would have given the climaxes more bloom. There is a short section in the Intermezzo where the wheels almost come off but this is a live performance and accidents do sometimes happen. You will have gathered by now that this recording doesn’t really compete with the likes of Maazel on CBS with the partnership of Scotto and Domingo which is my preferred choice. It’s enjoyable enough of its kind but it’s really a souvenir of a concert in Malta and not much else. For repeated listening I will only go back to hear the parts that involve Ms Gauci.

The bonus DVD is a nice idea and it’s interesting to hear from the composer’s grand-daughter, Simonetta Puccini. Running for 26 minutes does it tip the balance? No, it doesn’t. It’s not essential viewing for the Puccini enthusiast so if it’s the opera you are after look elsewhere.

John Whitmore



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