When Puccini Got the Willies

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A couple of weeks ago the wonderful Paris Opera Ballet returned to New York as part of the Lincoln Center Festival. As you can imagine, ballet is not particularly high in my artistic pantheon, yet I was interested in attending a performance of Giselle for a few reasons. When I was in Paris in March, I was dazzled by the Paris Opera Ballet’s dancing in the operetta The Merry Widow and wanted to see what else these dancers could do. It reminded me that a great opera company can also have a great ballet company.

What struck me about the recent Giselle was the incredibly high level of dancing by the entire company. They are inheritors and guardians of a glorious tradition, yet they perform with a freshness and immediacy one can only find in very few ballet companies. Many companies have a musty, museum-like quality to them, but not the Parisians. Here is an excerpt from act two of Giselle in the company’s current production. Note the supreme artistry and discipline of the corps de ballet.

I had another, more operatic, reason for wanting to see Giselle after many years: the story was the inspiration for Giacomo Puccini’s first opera, Le Villi. It could be argued that this work, seldom seen now, had a profound impact on how Puccini’s career would develop. But first, more about the ballet. In 1835, a French magazine called Revue des deux Mondes published an article by Heinrich Heine about the Willis, figures from Slavic folklore who are young women, engaged to be married, who die before their wedding day. Heine said the Willis cannot rest in peace in their tombs because they retain “a love for dance that they were unable to satisfy during their lives so, at midnight, they rise and gather to dance. Woe betide any young man who appears while they dance...he will die.”

The story of the Willis captivated the writers Théophile Gautier and Jules-Henry Vernoy de Saint-Georges, the choreographers Jules Perrot and Jean Corelli, the composer Adolphe-Charles Adam and the ballerina Carlotta Grisi. Together they created a “ballet-pantomime” called Giselle, ou Les Wilis, which had a sensational success at the Royal Academy of Music (forerunner of the Paris Opera) on June 28, 1841. The title character is a young woman who loves Prince Albrecht, whom she meets when he is disguised as a commoner. When Giselle discovers his true identity and that he is engaged to marry another woman, the shock kills her. In the second act, she is one of the Willis but, when Albrecht appears, she protects him rather than allow him to be killed. Not much of a story, but quite compelling as a ballet.

Adam, the composer of this ballet, wrote 41 opéra-comiques (operas with spoken dialogue, though not necessarily humorous) including hits such as Le Postillon de Longjumeau (1836), Giralda (1850) and Si j’étais roi! (1852) but will always be remembered primarily for his ballet Giselle.

Where does Puccini come in? In the early 1880s, he was a student at the Milan Conservatory of Music. Most of what he composed was orchestral rather than operatic. These included a Preludio Sinfonico (1882) and a Capriccio Sinfonico (1883). The latter was the composition that earned Puccini his diploma. It brought him considerable attention in Milan’s artistic circles and came to the attention of Ferdinando Fontana (1850-1919), a poet and journalist who had ideas about how opera should be changed. Fontana contended that opera should be more symphonic and less rooted in the human voice.

Fontana approached Puccini, a talented composer who had not yet written an opera, who was open to anyone who might have work for him. Fontana knew the story of Giselle and also went to the original source material and an 1852 short story (Les Wilis, by Alphonse Karr), thinking that this work would help him start writing the libretto for Puccini. It premiered at Milan’s Teatro dal Verme as Le Willis on May 31, 1884.

It was referred to variously as “a dramatic legend in one act and two scenes” and an “opera ballet.” It included more than the average amount of dance in an Italian opera and had encouraging success the first night. Puccini, with Fontana, decided to revise the work somewhat. It became a two-act opera with less dance when it was performed at the Teatro Regio in Torino on December 27, 1884 as Le Villi. It had enough success that critics and those who make decisions in opera companies deemed that Puccini might be the next great Italian composer.

Productions of Le Villi are rare, but you can listen to the whole opera, about 70 minutes, here. I think you will find that it sounds like a transitional work from Verdi to Puccini. Now watch the complete ballet for the sake of comparison. I could not locate an entire performance by the Paris Opera Ballet, but here is an excellent 1969 performance by American Ballet Theater starring Carla Fracci and Erik Bruhn:

One of the members of the audience at the premiere of Le Villi was Giulio Ricordi, the foremost music publisher in Italy. Thus began perhaps the most important relationship in Puccini’s career, one that would make him very rich and successful. Ricordi’s first project for Puccini was based on the publisher’s desire to see Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg performed in Italian at La Scala. Puccini was sent on two trips to Bayreuth to meet with Wagner’s heirs and he was granted access to the original scores. Puccini created a version called I Maestri Cantori di Norimberga which received a successful debut in Milan in 1889. This extended exposure to Wagner gave Puccini different, more complex ideas about melody and stagecraft than what he had learned at the conservatory.

In the meantime, Fontana, the librettist, was eager to do a second opera with the ascendant composer. He wrote a libretto for Edgar, which Puccini composed for its premiere in 1889. The story, which draws very heavily on Carmen, was not a success at the time, though it is occasionally performed nowadays. Ricordi encouraged Puccini to part with Fontana and proposed an idea for a new opera, the story of Manon Lescaut that had already been set to music in French by Auber (1856) and Massenet (1884). Even earlier, in 1830, it was a ballet with music by Halévy.

Having worked with only one librettist, Puccini had a lot to learn. At least five writers (Ruggero Leoncavallo, Marco Praga, Giuseppe Giacosa, Domenico Oliva and Luigi Illica) had a hand in the libretto of Manon Lescaut (1893) and it seems that Ricordi and Puccini also added text. The opera has gorgeous melodies but is quite flawed as drama.

This experience led Puccini to decide that, from that point forward, he would use two librettists for each opera. Giacosa and Illica were chosen for La Bohéme (1896) and, after that opera’s stunning success, the team was reunited for Tosca (1900) and Madama Butterfly (1904). Puccini often would play one librettist against the other and become very demanding, indeed difficult but, in the process, he became a superb editor.

Puccini may well have had an important career had he not met Ferdinando Fontana but, now that I have devoted time to study his early days, it seems to me that the consequences of his experiences in composing Le Villi (a work largely forgotten while Giselle endures as a timeless masterpiece) set him on the course to make him the much-loved composer he is today. Perhaps he would have been a symphonic composer had Fontana not approached him. Had Puccini not gone to Bayreuth, his sense of melody and sound would likely have been more conventionally Italianate and lacking the complexity he found. Who knows if his first five operas would have strong literary links to France (Tosca is based on a French-language play by Victorien Sardou)?

I think it would be very interesting for an enterprising opera company with a great ballet to present a double bill of Le Villi followed by a performance of Giselle.  

Are there any other opera/dance pairings you think would be worth presenting?