Verdi, Puccini and Bizet dominate opera house seasons year after year, and it's easy to understand why. All three were masters of marrying dramatic form with musical creativity, providing audiences with riveting theatre and memorable tunes. Sir Mark Elder, the London Philharmonic Orchestra and Opera Rara presented a programme of early stage works by all three composers, offering an evening of high drama despite the concert format.

Arsen Soghomonyan, Ermonela Jaho and the LPO © Russell Duncan
Arsen Soghomonyan, Ermonela Jaho and the LPO
© Russell Duncan

Georges Bizet's incidental music to L'Arlésienne is typically performed in suite format. Alphonse Daudet's sensationalist plot, about a young man driven to suicide by an unfaithful woman, is perhaps the closest French equivalent to the verismo movement. Elder's account certainly found parallels between Bizet and Puccini, offering a dramatic, sumptuous account. The prelude was taken at a brisk pace, while the minuet was performed as a white-hot Mahlerian scherzo. Elder's interpretation effectively highlighted the brutality of the work – an unconventional reading, but effective. The third movement offered a moment of repose, though choppy string playing did not allow for simmering tensions to be sustained. The finale, with horn ostinato depicting church bells, was carefully paced for maximum dramatic impact.

Verdi's Macbeth is most commonly given in its revised version for the Paris Opera, but the Act 3 ballet is rarely performed, perhaps for good reason. Highly fragmented, it introduces a variety of musical ideas but rarely develops them. The LPO gave a spirited account, despite a messy brass section, making the best possible case for the score. 

What we were really all here to see, though, was the first modern performance of Puccini's Le Willis. Composed for a competition of one-act operas, Puccini's attempt did not even place; nevertheless, it impressed no less than Arrigo Boito which led to its eventual staging and publication. The opera is commonly performed today in its two act revision (retitled Le villi), based on Ricordi's request that Puccini expand the score.

This performance was a reconstruction by musicologist Martin Deasy. Despite Le Willis being Puccini's first opera, one can already see the direction he would go; indeed, parts of the score bear a striking resemblance to Manon Lescaut and La bohème. It is clear that Puccini already had a talent for vivid orchestration, most obviously in the two-movement intermezzo that depict the abandonment of the heroine and her subsequent transfiguration into a vengeful corpse bride. This intermezzo displayed the LPO on its best possible form, capturing both the sumptuous melodic sweep of the first movement and the vengeful virtuosity of the dancing fairy brides. 

Arsen Soghomonyan, Ermonela Jaho, Sir Mark Elder and the LPO © Russell Duncan
Arsen Soghomonyan, Ermonela Jaho, Sir Mark Elder and the LPO
© Russell Duncan

Without a tenor or soprano aria, the only solo of the work belongs to Guglielmo, father of the abandoned heroine. Brian Mulligan offered a rounded baritone with impressive evenness throughout the registers. His youthful voice seemed an odd fit for the role though, not quite able to capture the booming anger of the recitative, though his aria proper showed off a lovely legato. It was particularly jarring to hear him in ensemble with tenor Arsen Soghomonyan, who sang Roberto. Soghomonyan spent years as a lyric baritone before transitioning into the dramatic tenor repertoire last year. Although he possesses the requisite clarion high notes and an Italianate squillo, his voice has retained its baritonal timbre and one occasionally wondered whether he would have been more effectively cast as Guglielmo. More concerningly, Soghomonyan offered little stage presence, displaying neither the character's affection in the first scene nor his remorse and fear in the finale. 

It was left, then, to Ermonela Jaho to make something of the evening. Already well known in London for her intense portrayals of Violetta, Suor Angelica and Madama Butterfly, Jaho brought her customary intensity and intelligence to the role of Anna. The character of the doomed heroine, apprehensively loving in the first scene and terrifyingly vengeful in the second, is a gift for an actress of Jaho's calibre. Indeed, she managed to command the stage even when not singing; her facial expressions during the intermezzo communicated the offstage action most effectively. Vocally, the role sits slightly awkwardly for her lyric soprano; much of the vocal writing sits in her middle range, where projection could be an issue. She was at her best in the finale, her entrance as a ghost suitably spine-chilling.

Despite some excellent performances, the original version of Le Willis is a dramatically odd piece of theatre. The extended prelude and chorus and intermezzo leave precious little time for any of the characters to develop either dramatically or musically. Indeed, the best drama of the evening came in the encore of Anna and Roberto's arias written for the revised opera. Here, Jaho offered some of her most beautiful singing of the evening, with carefully articulated mordents and some stunning high pianissimi. Similarly, Roberto's “Torna ai felici dì” seemed a complete transformation for Soghomonyan, who offered an impassioned performance capped by a ringing high B flat.

***11