26 Sep 2020

Anima Rara: Ermonela Jaho

In February this year, Albanian soprano Ermonela Jaho made a highly lauded debut recital at Wigmore Hall - a concert which both celebrated Opera Rara’s 50th anniversary and honoured the career of the Italian soprano Rosina Storchio (1872-1945), the star of verismo who created the title roles in Leoncavallo’s La bohème and Zazà, Mascagni’s Lodoletta and Puccini’s Madama Butterfly.

During that Evening with Rosina Storchio, Jaho and pianist Steven Maughan presented music which had been created for and championed by Storchio. Mascagni, Leoncavallo and Massenet remain at the heart of Jaho’s debut recital disc, Anima Rara (for which she is joined by the young Italian conductor Andrea Battsitoni and the Orquestra de la Comunitat Valenciana), but the songs and salon pieces - by Donizetti, Bellini, Bizet, Tosti, Toscanini and Gonoud - that we heard at Wigmore Hall have been replaced by operatic numbers by Catalani, Boito, Verdi and Puccini. Neither the diversity of mood nor the sense of discovery that that Wigmore Hall programme offered have been lost, though: alongside Butterfly’s ‘Un bel dì’, Violetta’s ‘Teneste la promessa … Addio del passato’ and Manon’s ‘Allons! Il le faut … Adieu, notre petite table’, there are rarer offerings - from Giordano’s Siberia, Leoncavallo’sLa bohème, Mascagni’s Iris, Massenet’s Sapho and Boito’s Mefistofele.

Puccini frames the sequence. ‘Un bel dì’ makes for an impassioned opening: it also has a recitative-like freedom which suggests that Jaho and conductor Andrea Battistoni had long conversations and lengthy rehearsals. Jaho’s vibrato is quite broad: but it is employed to create a febrile intensity - there’s no doubting this Cio-Cio-san’s self-belief and emotional fervour, though there is a lovely withdrawal which captures Butterfly’s inner faith and certainty: “Io non gli scendo incontro. Io no.” (I do not go to meet him, not I.) Madama Butterfly’s final moments close the disc. When she reads the inscription of her father’s knife, ‘Con onor muore’, Butterfly understands her fate: “Who cannot live with honour must die with honour.” The brusque and brutal utterances of the cellos and double basses of the Orquestra de la Comunitat Valenciana anticipate the stabbing blade; the subsequent orchestral explosion embodies both the psychological fracture and the physical horror. Jaho sounds unhinged; every ounce of Butterfly’s desperation resonates with terrible directness.

Rosina Storchio  Cio-Cio-San.jpg Rosina Storchio as Cio-Cio-San at the premiere of Madama Butterfly at La Scala Theatre in Milan, 17th February 1904.

From La traviata we have ‘Teneste la promessa... Addio del passato’: despite père Germont’s belated understanding, Violetta knows it is too late, and she bids farewell to love and life. The engineers ensure that Violetta’s spoken words are clear - and, gosh, they erupt with emotive fire into soul-gripping recitative. But, the forces of Orquestra de la Comunitat Valenciana are fairly conservative and given the expansiveness of Jaho’s expressive mode, a fuller tutti string texture might have been welcome (there’s some terrific oboe playing though!). The way Jaho combines vocal control and impassioned expression is stunning: “A lei, deh, perdona; tu accoglila, o Dio, Or tutto finì.” (And may God pardon and make her his own! Ah, all is finished.) is a heart-breaking integration of resignation and resistance. If I had one ‘criticism’ it would be that I’d like more ‘text’, and more consonants, but the vocal febricity is sufficient recompense - even when she withholds Jaho’s soprano pierces to the heart.

There are two numbers from Leoncavallo’s La bohème. In ‘Musette svaria sullaj bocca viva’, Mimì describes Musette’s beauty and addiction to love to the revellers at Café Momus. Jaho doesn’t do playfulness with quite the same panache that she does poignancy or passion; there’s not quiet enough ‘sway’ in the voice, and as she trips through the jaunty phrases there’s an occasional ‘edge’ to the tone, though when she opens up at the top her soprano is glossy and full. Musette returns the favour, extolling her friend’s charm and cheerfulness in ‘Mimì Pinson, la biondinetta’ (in the opera she is joined at the close of the short aria by the full-throated bohemians). Jaho doesn’t quite match the instrumentalists’ debonair lightness and easefulness, but she copes well with plunges down to the lowest end of the soprano’s range and dances back up to top with elegance.

Massenet’s Sapho also presents a ‘fallen woman’ - Fanny Legrand, an infamous artist’s model. When her younger lover, Jean, rejects her because of her disreputable past, she pursues him from Paris to Avignon and in ‘Pendant un an je fus ta femme’ she pleads with him to return to her. Fanny’s soaring sweet arcs are tailor-made for Jaho, who floats them with exquisite delicacy, tapering the phrase-ends so that the beauty seems to linger in the silence. Battistoni listens and responds to every hint of inner passion: the tender accompaniment pulsates gently but blooms instantly when Fanny’s implorings burn with longing. “Viens! Car tu m’aimes encore!” presses Jaho, with urgency and power, before a sudden retreat exposes her vulnerability, “Vois ma douleur”, only for the whispered thread to swell richly once more, in desperate need, “seul, tu peux l’apaiser.” (See my pain, you alone can ease it.) Jaho controls the emotional and dynamic fluctuations superbly; three repetitions of “Viens!” span an emotional gamut and bare a whole soul. Her pianissimo is heart-melting - “ta bouche ne saurait oublier mon baiser” hovers hypnotically on a top Bb, somehow both angelic and tempting.

In the opera’s final act, alone and abandoned Fanny reflects on the misery love has wrought. The orchestral Prelude, ‘Solitude’ is beautifully played. Battistoni finds tension and drama in the smallest motifs; the colours are rich, the flexible phrasing is refined, the strings’ tone is intense. Jaho does not just communicate Fanny’s suffering, she lives it, her voice seeming to throb with the rawness of her broken heart. And, at the close there’s a wonderful softening and relaxation which embodies Fanny’s hope, as she thinks of the future, of how she will return to her illegitimate child and raise him to be good and honest, and thereby find happiness.

Andrea Battistoni.jpg Andrea Battistoni.

Mascagni is similarly represented by a pair of arias. In ‘Un dì (ero piccina)’ from the second act of Iris, the eponymous heroine - kidnapped by the lecherous Kyoto - remembers a painted screen that she saw when she was a child with its image of a young woman being tormented by a huge octopus, a symbol of sexual violence. The pressing pace and rolling woodwind lines, propelled by the solos strings’ subtle accents, create a tense urgency and Jaho’s whispered recollections, climbing ever higher through chromatic twists, vividly capture Iris’s growing terror as she understands her fate. As the dreadful image re-forms itself in her mind, Iris’s agitation and anxiety explode in startling vocal outbursts. A smile that was a spasm, the tentacles that squeezed and bound her face: the thrilling vividness of Jaho’s soprano reveals such images to be scorched into Iris’s memory, and the latter’s horror seems a palpable and petrifying force that lifts Jaho’s soprano with uncanny ease to shining heights, “Quella piovra è la Morte!” (This monster is death!) After such overwhelming, hypnotic hysteria, the earnestness and gentler passions of Suzel’s first aria, ‘Son pochi fiori’ (L’amico Fritz), in which she gives the wealthy Fritz a birthday bouquet, confirm Jaho’s expressive range, and the warmth of her lower register. We are denied Fritz’s response to her gift, but the violins’ and flute’s reprise of Suzel’s melody forms a tender postlude.

Jaho Fadil Berisha.jpgErmonela Jaho © Fadil Berisha.

Most of the numbers are just a few minutes long, so it’s good to have the opportunity to hear ‘Ah! Il suo nome! ... Flammen perdonami ...’ from Mascagni’s Lodoletta - a twelve-minute death-scene which was a highlight of Jaho’s Wigmore Hall recital. The recording does not disappoint. And now we have the orchestral canvas too, which Battistoni paints with sensitivity and eloquence. The woodwind playing is particularly fine and there are some touching string solos. Jaho segues from blissful anticipation, when Lodoletta arrives at Flammen’s house, through peace and certainty, to pained misunderstanding and despair, and finally to ecstatic delusion and death. There’s not a phrase that does not pulsate with emotion; not a phrase that does not develop, dramatise and deepen our understanding and sympathy.

Anima Rara is a must-buy for this track alone, but there are other revelations, too, from similarly long-neglected repertoire. ‘L’altra notte in fondo al mare’ from the third act of Boito’s Mefistofele, which Margherita sings from her prison cell, begins with a dark string prelude that slithers its way down in the depths of the dungeon, where this Margherita raves with quasi-delirious fervour. Jaho’s arppegiac, decorative meanderings are pristinely executed and crystalline. In contrast, Stephana’s prayer, ‘Nel suo amore rianimata’, from Giordano’s Siberia is the epitome of poised contentment, the final “Amor …” sustained with infinite calm. A similar controlled composure characterises ‘Ebben? Ne andro lontana’ from Catalani’s La Wally. Jaho’s firm line, centred focus, and vocal vehemence capture Wally’s inner strength and resilience, as she vows to defy her father’s threats to marry her to the man of his choice, Gellner.

Opera Rara presents Jaho’s performances immaculately. Musicologist Ditlev Rindom supplements his article about Rosina Storchio with additional information about the arias, placing each in the context of their first performance, and of Storchio’s career, and providing helpful musical observations to guide the listener’s ear. The booklet is illustrated with photographs, of Jaho, Battistoni and the musicians, in rehearsal and in the recording studio, and of Storchio herself.

Translated literally as ‘rare soul’, Anima Rara is aptly titled indeed.

Claire Seymour

Ermonela Jaho (soprano), Andrea Battistoni (conductor), Orquestra de la Comunitat Valenciana

Puccini - ‘Un bel dì vedremo’ (Madama Butterfly), Leoncavallo - ‘Musette svaria sulla bocca viva’ (La bohème), Mascagni - ‘Un di, ero piccina’ (Iris), Massenet - ‘Pendant un an je fus ta femme’ (Sapho), Boito - ‘L altra notte in fondo al mare’ ( Mefistofele), Mascagni - ‘Ah! Il suo nome! ... Flammen perdonami ... (Lodoletta), Massenet - ‘Allons! Il le faut ... Adieu, notre petite table’ (Manon), Giordano - ‘Nel suo amore rianimata’ (Siberia), Verdi - ‘Teneste la promessa ... Addio del passato’ ( La Traviata), Mascagni - ‘Son pochi fiori’ (L’amico Fritz ), Catalani - ‘Ebben? Ne andro lontana’ (La Wally), Leoncavallo - ‘Mimi Pinson, la biondinetta’ (La bohème), Massenet - Prelude Act V and ‘Demain je partirai’ (Sapho), Puccini - ‘Con onor muore ... Tu? Tu? Piccolo Iddio’ (Madama Butterfly)