By Jane Sylvester
In the midst of a decade-long stylistic crisis in the world of Italian opera, a young Giacomo Puccini emerged on the public scene in 1884 with Le Villi, a two-act opera-ballet detailing the haunted demise of an unfaithful man by way of the opera’s eponymously titled characters. ‘Le Villi’, or ‘The Willis’, were virgins who died of grief because of their lover’s betrayal. In their afterlife they became vindictive nymphs who haunted forests and preyed on men who crossed their paths at night, encircling their victims in bacchanal rounds until they died at their feet.
In Puccini’s opera, the Willis first manifest themselves through orchestral sound in the work’s two-part symphonic intermezzo, set between Acts I and II. In particular, the second part of this intermezzo, entitled ‘La Tregenda’, introduces the ghostly nymphs in a strangely visceral and gestural manner. Set in a brisk triple metre, ‘La Tregenda’ resembles a lively tarantella, a southern Italian folk dance typically performed by an ensemble of women. Traditionally, the tarantella is performed in a frenzied round, with at least one dancer playing the tambourine along with their supporting accompaniment. In Puccini’s take, aggressive brass lines contrast with lighter, buoyant melodies from the high woodwinds in clear, four-bar phrases, teetering on the edge of rooted balance and erotic pleasure. Characterised further by its fast, cyclical qualities, ‘La Tregenda’ emulates the motion of the dangerous ghostly Willis, as suggested by librettist Ferdinando Fontana’s scenic poetry.
While Italian audiences were enthusiastic about their rising operatic star, a number of critics took issue with Puccini due to the heavy-handed orchestral treatment of his villainous spectres. For them, ‘La Tregenda’ not only created an uneasy, sonic notion of the immaterial body, it also incited controversy about the increasingly prominent role of orchestral sound in the tradition of Italian opera. Though otherwise enthusiastic about Puccini’s work, Milan’s leading critic of the time, Filippo Filippi, wrote that ‘Puccini has an essentially symphonic nature, and … often abuses it, overloading the pedestal to the detriment of the statue’. Filippi voiced ongoing concerns about Puccini’s experimental treatment of the symphonic element, and appeared cautious towards the composer’s Germanic sonic leanings, particularly as his colourful orchestration overwhelmed the ‘statue’ of melody so central to the Italian operatic tradition.
For Filippi and other like-minded contemporary observers, Puccini’s heightened, sensorial treatment of the orchestra was reminiscent of Wagner—or, at the very least, of the more radical Italian scapigliati. While later defending Puccini’s Italianness in the opera, a critic from Lucca poked fun at ‘La Tregenda’ for evoking the wrong kind of ghost: not the nymphal spectres soon to emerge in Act II, but instead the phantom of the (recently dead) German composer. This writer argued: ‘the Wagnerian ghost sometimes peeks out, and there is a point in which, rather than [envisioning] the Willis turning furiously, one would believe they had seen the furious “Ride of the Valkyrie”’. While enthusiastic about Puccini’s potential, Verdi, too, was concerned about the young composer’s robust orchestration. In a letter to Count Opprandino Arrivabene, he outcried: “it seems that the symphonic element predominates in him! No harm in that. But here we should go carefully. Opera is opera and symphony is symphony, and I don’t think that in an opera it’s a good idea to write a symphonic piece merely for the pleasure of making the orchestra dance’.
While Verdi found Puccini’s symphonic tendencies indulgent, others welcomed his orchestral stylings in ‘La Tregenda’. A critic from the prominent periodical, the Gazzetta musicale di Milano, celebrated the interlude’s resemblance to Wagnerian music dramas, praising ‘La Tregenda’ as a promising and necessary step towards defining the future of Italian opera. ‘Even in popular theatres’, he observed, ‘the old conventionalism of Italian melodrama is ruined … The ever increasing symphonic concerts cannot fail to have a huge influence on the fate of musical theater … The libretto is about to change into a poem, as the melodrama is about to change into a great symphony represented on the scene’. Other critics similarly received Puccini’s abstract take on melodramatic expression as a welcome novelty. Antonio Gramola, for example, praised the interlude for its ‘fresh’ ideas of sensory ‘fantasy’— a seeming novelty on the Italian operatic stage. Aminatore Galli celebrated the work’s ability to ‘bewitch’ the listener with its ‘acoustic colors’.
In all, this boisterous intermezzo not only roused anxiety about the variable position of sound and materiality within the tradition of Italian opera, but spoke to contemporary pseudoscientific practices that were influencing sensory modes of perception. Specifically, the rise of spiritualism prompted a new obsession with representing ghostly and spiritual bodies in a quantifiable, even palpable manner. At its height in the mid-to-late nineteenth century, spiritualism functioned as a form of bourgeois amusement, a religious practice and a discipline of scientific investigation. As early as 1848, spiritualist performers and mediums held public shows and séances to channel spirits. In such settings, draped cloths and dim lighting obscured concrete images or sounds, while percussive tapping, vocalizations and instrumental sounds played from veiled distances, giving the impression that supernatural forces played of their own accord.
Machines and gadgets became crucial tools for scientifically-inclined spiritualists to document imperceptible expressions of the body and of material objects. The intervention of photography—a medium understood for its transparency in the nineteenth century—was a critical tool for spiritualism’s crossover from the entertainment industry into genuine scientific study. Achieved through techniques such as double exposure, superimposition, and staging scenes with levitating props and mysterious figures, spirit photography rendered the invisible world perceptible to the naked eye of mass consumers and intellectuals alike.
Evident in the photographic and mechanic innovations of Eadweard Muybridge and Étienne-Jules Marey, these new modes of sensory and bodily documentation captured intangible sources of movement and life. Muybridge, best known for his chronographic images of human gesture and animal motion, captured the intricacies of movement that were imperceptible to the eye in real time. In his 1886-87 movement study, Marey recorded the impact of physical sensations on objects, including, among others, the impact of air on inanimate objects. Enlivening both the living and inanimate beyond what the naked eye could see, Muybridge and Marey’s photographic studies cataloged various forces acting on and around the body, forming an inscriptive mode to analyze the body in space and time.
Considering such innovations in light of Puccini’s unsettling intermezzo, we might understand the young composer’s robust orchestral treatment of his ghostly nymphs as a nod to these modern aspirations to perceive invisible sensations. Key to contemporary spiritualist practice was the play of immaterial authority (through nebulous imagery or sound) over material space, an idea explored to controversial effect in ‘La Tregenda’. Whether sceptical or celebratory towards the resultant sounds of this intermezzo, Puccini’s critics uniformly gestured towards a turning point for Italian opera, particularly in respect to its sonic treatment of the body. For Filippi and Verdi, Puccini’s heavy-handed symphonic writing frustrated the conventional balance of the senses in the musical-theatrical genre: the orchestral interludes tempted the ear to the detriment of the eye, a misstep in a musical tradition rooted in the material and the visual. Others, like Gramola and Galli, were enchanted by Puccini’s fantastical evocation of the ghostly nymphs.
Puccini’s orchestral dance not only preemptively articulates the Willis’ powerful, gestural bodies through sound, but furthermore projects their influence in a sensational fashion that transcends voice and materiality before they appear in the following scene of Act II. In an operatic tradition long celebrated for its melodies—sung by real, humanly bodies rather than supernatural or spectral sources—Puccini’s elusively sensorial treatment of the Willis in this interlude triggered caution and excitement towards bodies heard and affectively felt, but not yet seen. Like the technologies and practices of spiritualism, we might hear Puccini’s intermezzo as an experimental enlivening of the senses beyond their conventional or even objective capacity, rendering invisible bodies, sensations, and narratives perceptible to his audiences.
Jane Sylvester is a PhD candidate in Musicology at the Eastman School of Music at the University of Rochester. Her current research considers the sociocultural conditions underlying verismo opera’s celebrated bodily realism by tracing the genre’s indebtedness to contemporary scientific and pseudoscientific disciplines, including criminology, hypnosis, forensics, and spiritualism.