True to its advertising, the company Opera Rara specializes in rare operas. That category might not seem to apply to Puccini, but Le Willis, the original 1883 version of what became his first full-length opera, Le Villi (1889), has apparently never been recorded and perhaps has never even been performed since its original reading. That was for a contest for one-act operas that Puccini entered while still a student. He didn't win, but the music attracted the attention of Arrigo Boito, among others, and was eventually expanded into Le Villi as it is known today (itself not often performed). You can see why: it doesn't take long before you can guess who the composer is even if you haven't looked at the graphics. The opening prelude won't quite do it (Puccini was accused, accurately enough, of aping Wagner here), but the vocal numbers that follow are pure Puccini, with many nice touches of orchestration and lush, passionate vocal lines. There aren't really arias, but there is a corker of an ensemble preghiera (sample "Angiol di Dio"). The story concerns the titular spirits, respelled more idiomatically as "Le Villi" when the opera was rewritten, who torment Roberto, a young Black Forester, after he leaves town and falls into the clutches of a temptress. His fiancée dies of grief in the meantime. This development is not sung but is recounted in a pair of orchestral interludes, which here come in the middle of the opera, bringing the action to a screeching halt. In Le Villi, they become an entr'acte. The three lead singers (the fiancée's father is the other major character) are attractive and take into account the small dimensions of the work; best of all is Sir Mark Elder's way with the London Philharmonic Orchestra. Elder has an instinct for Puccini, and those who love this composer will want to explore here how clearly present his distinctive voice was even at this early stage. Two numbers from the 1889 version are offered as an appendix.
AllMusic Review by James Manheim