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An Evening with Rosina Storchio: Ermonela Jaho at Wigmore Hall

‘The world’s most acclaimed Soprano’: the programme booklet produced for Ermonela Jaho’s Wigmore Hall debut was keen to emphasise the Albanian soprano’s prestigious status, as judged by The Economist, and it was standing-room only at the Hall which was full to capacity with Jaho’s fervent fans and opera-lovers.

An Evening with Rosina Storchio: Ermonela Jaho at Wigmore Hall

A review by Claire Seymour

Above: Ermonela Jaho

Photo credit: Russell Duncan

 

Certainly, Jaho’s intense commitment and emotional empathy with the characters whom she embodies on stage inspire deep responses among audiences. When I mentioned to a friend that I was looking forward to hearing Jaho in the recital room, she commented, “I love her! I’ve never heard as much crying in the ROH as when we saw her Suor Angelica. Grown men were sobbing!”

Jaho’s debut recital was a celebration of 50 years of Opera Rara’s ground-breaking opera-archaeology and of the career of Rosina Storchio, the Italian soprano (1872-1945) who might be deemed the principal creator of much of the verismo repertoire that Opera Rara have revived, performed and recorded during the past five decades. Storchio came to notice in Venice in 1897 when she took part in the first performance of Leoncavallo’s La bohème - ‘Musette svaria sulla bocca viva’ from this opera was Jaho’s somewhat tentative opening item here - and the stellar years of her career began when Storchio sang the title role in the première of the same composer’s Zazà (at Milan’s Teatro Lirico on 10th November 1900, conducted by Arturo Toscanini - a role taken by Jaho herself in Opera Rara’s 2015 performance at the Barbican Hall.

Verismo might have begun as a French literary movement characterised by naturalism of expression and realism of subject matter, but in opera the term came to be seen as a shorthand for dramatic excess and sometimes violent vocalism. But, it didn’t have to be that way. Storchio herself had a voice that might be described as lirico-leggero. Grove describes her soprano as ‘not large, but flexible, pure and sweet’: ‘at the height of the popularity for verismo opera she personified the lyrical, refined, gentle school of singing. Her plaintive and fragile Cio-Cio-San was typical of this approach … [b]ut in other roles, such as Violetta or Manon, her acute sensitivity led her to depict the characters with passionate and touching impulsiveness.’

Such words might also describe Jaho herself, and in this programme - a mixture of excerpts from Storchio’s operatic repertoire and salon pieces and songs from the period, curated by Roger Parker, Opera Rara’s Artistic Dramaturg, and music historian Ditlev Rindom - she exploited the lightness and gentleness of her voice to the full, in particular her ability to make the longest phrases float tenderly, as if eternal, and then fade delicately with supreme control to the merest, tantalising whisper.

Steven Maughan and EJ.jpgSteven Maughan and Ermonela Jaho. Photo credit: Russell Duncan.

Jaho was at her best in the extracts from opera scenes depicting characters pushed to emotional extremes. If her diction was less than attentive to the careful naturalism of the composers’ word-setting, then she more than made up for this with powerful outbursts of lyric emotion which communicated with compelling honesty and directness. ‘Mamma? Io non l’ho avuta mai’ perfectly captured Zazà’s somewhat languid nonchalance at the start, before gradually gaining in intensity and colour. In contrast, ‘Un dì ero piccina’ from Mascagni’s Iris alternated anxious, breathless stutterings, gently nudged along by the piano’s steady rhythms, with expansive lyric moments, as when the young Iris recalls the shocking blood-red sky on a picture-screen she had seen as a child, depicting a woman being tormented by enormous octopus, a symbol of sexual violence. Jaho’s soprano was a surging burst of colour, “Rossi sì come sangue,/ D’un rosso livido.”, and at the close she stood immobilised by horror, her slender arms clasped across chest, her hands tightly clenched.

Steven Maughan, a member of the Opera Rara ‘family’, was a sensitive and supportive accompanist throughout the evening, but at such moments one felt the absence of an orchestral palette to complement the vocal hues with which Jaho so precisely delineated love and pain, fear and joy. The piano rumbled threateningly at the close of ‘Pendant un an je fus ta femme’ from Massenet’s Sapho, but even the Wigmore Hall’s Steinway was no match for the emotional intensity of Jaho’s impassioned vocal implorations, “Viens! Viens! Viens! M’ami!”, as Fanny calls upon the lover who has abandoned her to return and witness her suffering.

‘Son pochi fiori’ from Mascagni’s L’amico Fritz was infused with a gentle warmth, and sweetness billowed through ‘Nel suo amore’ from Giordano’s Siberia, in which Storchio took the role of Stephana at the premiere in Milan on 19th December 1903. The relaxed declamation of the opening, tenderly supported by the piano, evolved into sunlit images of love - heavenly light the aroma of spring flowers, and the diminishment of the soft repetition, “amor, amor!”, at the close was breath-taking.

Jaho seemed less comfortable in the salon pieces and songs. These comprised much of the first half of the recital, and perhaps it was a combination of nerves and excitement - arriving on stage, Jaho looked out at the capacity audience with a smile, a sigh and a slight shrug of the shoulders - but the soprano seemed to take a little while to settle in the items which lacked a distinct dramatic context. There were some slips of intonation, too, which marred Bellini’s ‘Vaga luna, che inargenti’ and ‘Malinconia, ninfa gentile’ and while the warmth of Jaho’s lower register added poignancy to Donizetti’s ‘Venne sull’ali ai zeffiri’ - a lament upon the death of Bellini - the rather wide vibrato employed did not seem entirely appropriate for Wigmore Hall’s intimacy and fine acoustic.

But, it was good to hear some unfamiliar repertoire. Jaho’s vocal characterisation in Cilea’s ‘Non ti voglio amar’ was affectionate and engaging, and the impassioned close to Tosti’s ‘Tristezza’ was compelling, as the voice floated up an octave all the while fading, and Jaho swooned onto the piano as if weakened by the knowledge that the heart’s dreams will inevitably be lost. And, we even had a song by Toscanini, ‘Nevrosi’, which throbbed with expansive emotions.

Jaho rose to the heights in the very final item, ‘Flammen perdonami’ from Mascagni’s Lodeletta, a role created by Storchio at the Teatro Costanzi in Rome on 30th April 1917 with the composer himself conducting. The libretto is characteristically excessive and improbable, and the opera has disappeared from the repertory. But, Mascagni knew how to exploit the voice for emotive and dramatic effect. In this 13-minute death scene, the 16-year-old Lodoletta, who has been abandoned by her lover, the Parisian painter Flammen (who comforted her upon the death of her adoptive father), arrives outside Flammen’s house on a freezing cold New Year’s Eve. Seeing him dancing with another woman, she mistakenly believes that he has forgotten her and collapses in the snow. Overcome by delusions that Flammens is embracing her, she succumbs to frostbite and freezes to death. Jaho exploited every drop of Mascagni’s hyper-Romantic emotionalism. The Wigmore Hall audience loved it.

Storchio had been the first Cio-Cio-San, creating the role at La Scala in 1904, and it was the final role that she sang on stage, in Barcelona in 1923. So, ‘Un bel dì’ was a fitting encore - the perfect conclusion to a fine evening.

Ermonela Jaho’s recital disc, Homage to Rosina Storchio , on which she is accompanied by the Orquestra de la Comunitat Valenciana conducted by Andrea Battistoni, will be released by Opera Rara in September 2020.

Claire Seymour

Ermonela Jaho (soprano), Steven Maughan (piano)

Leoncavallo - ‘Musette svaria sulla bocca viva’ (La bohème); Bellini - ‘Vaga luna, che inargenti’, ‘ Malinconia, ninfa gentile’; Donizetti - ‘Venne sull’ale ai zeffiri’; Verdi - ‘In solitaria stanza’, ‘Brindisi’; Leoncavallo - ‘Valse coquette’, ‘Mamma? Io non l’ho avuta mai’ (Zazà); Cilea - Non ti voglio amar; Tosti - ‘Tristezza’; Toscanini - ‘Nevrosi’; Mascagni - ‘Un dì ero piccina’ (Iris); Mascagni - ‘Son pochi fiori’ (L’amico Fritz); Gounod - Sérénade: ‘Chantez, riez, dormez’; Bizet - ‘Chanson d’avril’; Massenet - ‘Pendant un an je fus ta femme’ (Sapho), ‘Allons! Il le faut ... Adieu’ (Manon ); Giordano - ‘Valzer serenata’, ‘Nel suo amore rianimata’ ( Siberia); Puccini - ‘Sole e amore’; Mascagni - ‘Flammen perdonami’ (Lodoletta).

Wigmore Hall, London; Sunday 2nd February 2020.

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