Puccini meets 'Night of the Living Dead' in Opera Vivente production
Performed in English as "The Will-o-the-Wisps" (in Italian, it was first called "Le Willis," then "Le Villi"), this opera has never gained a foothold in the repertoire, understandably.
For one thing, it has a weak-as-water libretto -- the sweet Anna dies of a broken heart while waiting for boyfriend Robert to come back from a journey to claim an inheritance; by the time he does return, she's one of the will-o-the-wisps (a pack of other un-dead, jilted, angry women) and lures him to his death.
There's no character development to speak of, and not really much of what you'd call action. At about 60 minutes in length, the piece just doesn't develop enough musical or theatrical steam.
But, hey, no opera is perfect (well, maybe a couple). And the shortcomings clearly don't bother Opera Vivente general director John Bowen; this is his second staging of the work in less than a decade. Besides, even the not-yet-mature Puccini knew how to compose some wonderfully soaring melodies and to construct some vivid orchestral passages. So this is definitely an opera worth exploring.
In 2002, Bowen gave the piece a Scottish setting. This time, he offers a more effective angle, transplanting the paltry plot to ...
By the last scene, when belatedly repentant Robert comes back to the sticks, it seems that all the characters, including Anna's father and the local townsfolk, have gone over to to dark side -- we're talking "Night of the Living Dead," the swamp edition. Cool.
An especially telling bit of stage business comes during an orchestral interlude. Rather than a funeral procession revealing Anna's death (as was done when the opera was new in 1884), Bowen has neighbors coming and going from the house, paying their respects to Anna's father.
Friday night's performance found the cast in uniformly ardent form (I wish diction had been as consistent). Lisa Eden conveyed Anna's anguish persuasively. The soprano's tone tended to turn edgy under pressure, but her phrasing hit home.
Kenneth Gayle brought his familiar impassioned style (and limited dynamic range) to the tole of Robert, digging vividly into the prolonged Act 2 solo, one of Puccini's most striking touches in the score.
Nathan Wentworth didn't always produce a smooth sound, but the baritone offered an effective portrayal of Anna'a father, William.
The chorus was in more or less steady form. As the will-o-the-wisps, members of the Baltimore School for the Arts, choreographed by Anton T. Wilson's choreography, writhed spookily.
The full richness of Puccini's orchestration requires large forces to unleash, but conductor JoAnn Kulesza drew quite a lot of sound out of the small, efficient ensemble, and she shaped the music with admirable sensitivity.
Opera Vivente heads next season to the Maryland State Boychoir's venue on Norman Ave. The season will include "The Marriage of Figaro," "Ariodante" and "The Bartered Bride" (done in Bawl'mor-ese).
PHOTOS (by Cory Weaver) COURTESY OF OPERA VIVENTE