Puccini Le villi
Yes, Le villi is early Puccini, but the accent should be on the composer's name, not on the adjective. There are some pages of coarse scoring, some of the music (especially that for chorus) Is conventional or derivative, and the work is both formally and dramatically a mess: if you can imagine a version of Othello consisting of the first and last scenes only, between which a narrator tells us all about lago and the Moor's jealousy and the handkerchief and Roderigo, you will get a rough idea of the Le villi problem. But Puccini's fingerprints are everywhere for all that. Many touches of harmony are aiready characteristic many orchestral details (the subtle use of the harp. for instance) would not seem out of place in his later scores, and he already knows exactly how to structure such an aria as the heroine Anna's Act I romanza, teasing us with a bright introduction in duple time and with leisured opening phrases for the soprano before admitting, with a change of tempo and a franker rhythm, that yes, this is indeed a demurely charming waltz-song, with a hint of the true Puccini heroine's vulnerability to it. The tenor has a good scene, too, indeed one of the most ambitious that Puccini ever composed: in effect an aria (and a recognizably pre-Puccinian one in its full-throated melodic outpouring) embedded within a dramatic scena of fear and guilt with many quasi-Wagnerian recollections of earlier material.
Neither of the entr'actes (there is so much off-stage action to be reported that Puccini needs two of them, one after the other) is really dramatic music as yet, but it is not merely wisdom after the event to recognize the future composer of Manon Lescaut in the luscious string writing of the first of them, and the jaunty second is enjoyable (not least for the engaging cheek with which two one-bar fragments are industriously permutated for close on four minutes) provided you forget that it is intended to describe something rather like a witches' sabbath. Even the derivative passages are sometimes surprising. One would expect Puccini to have studied Verdi with care and to have taken leaves from the books of Wagner, Meyerbeer and Ponchielli, but did he at this stage (1883) really know his Tchaikovsky as well as some moments here suggest?
It deserves a place, in fact, in at least the appendix to the Puccini canon (rather more so, in some ways, than its successor Edgar) and this performance does it full justice. One might quibble a little at one or two of Domingo's nasal 'e' sounds or at Scotto's rather shrill top (a bit more obtrusive on CD than it was on LP), but both of them, Scotto especially, sing with real conviction and affection, and to have Gobbi, no less, so obviously relishing the preposterous text of his spoken role is a considerable bonus. Maazel does not always do all that he might to reduce the opacity of Puccini's heavier pages, but in all the more interesting passages he too makes it clear that this score has as much of accomplishment to it as promise. The added presence and clarity of detail of CD are appreciable throughout. '