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Anima Rara
Ermonela Jaho (soprano), Orquestra de la Comunitat Valenciana/Andrea Battistoni
rec. 2019, Palau de les Arts Reina Sofia, Valencia, Spain
Full sung texts with English translations
OPERA RARA ORR253 [70:04]

Many admirers of Opera Rara will be familiar with the voice of Albanian-born soprano Ermonela Jaho. She has appeared on two of the label’s recent releases: Puccini’s Le Willis as Anna, and Leoncavallo’s Zaz in the title role. A recipient of prestigious awards, she is noted for thrilling performances and the emotional involvement in her roles. Jaho’s road to stardom has been gradual. It is nearly thirty years since the seventeen-year-old student made her debut on the opera stage in Tirana as Violetta from La traviata, with piano accompaniment. Renowned also for the compelling characterisation given to her roles, Jaho is in great demand internationally. Notably, she is much admired for her signature roles of Violetta and of Cio-Cio-san from Madama Butterfly.

For this eagerly anticipated debut recital album Anima Rara (Rare soul), Jaho focuses on the Italian verismo style. She aims to honour the career of Venetian lyric soprano Rosina Storchio (1872-1945) on the seventy-fifth anniversary of her death. Widely celebrated in her day, Storchio created five verismo roles, four of which have arias included on this programme. She sang Mim in Leoncavallo’s La bohme, Stephana in Giordano’s Siberia, Cio-Cio-san in Puccini’s Madama Butterfly, and Lodoletta in Mascagni’s Lodoletta. The other verismo role Storchio created, Leoncavallo’s Zaz, has already been recorded complete (review).

The word verismo derives from the Italian vero (real; true). It is the title given to the rather short-lived art and cultural movement in vogue in Italy towards the end of the nineteenth century. In opera, the advent of verismo outmoded the traditional Italian librettos that had focused on gods, heroic and mythological figures, and kings and queens from history. Established in the Italian post-Romantic opera tradition, verismo seeks to portray ordinary people in gritty real-life, contemporary scenes, warts and all. In opera, verismo is exemplified by Mascagni’s Cavalleria rusticana (premiered in 1890 and widely acknowledged as the first real verismo opera) and Leoncavallo’s I Pagliacci (premiered in 1892).

On this dics, Jaho continues what seems to be the recent custom of star opera singers, mainly tenors and sopranos: record all-verismo collections. In the last decade, there have been four such studio albums, by Jonas Kaufmann (Decca 2010), Anna Netrebko ( Deutsche Grammophon 2016), Angela Gheorghiu (Warner 2017), and Piotr Beczała (Pentatone 2019).

Eight Italian composers and fourteen arias are represented on Jaho’s album. They come from eleven separate verismo operas. Mascagni and Massenet each supply three arias, Leoncavallo and Puccini two. The theme of this programme is in line with the label’s founding objective of ‘rediscovering, recording and performing the forgotten operatic heritage’. In addition to the allure of Jaho’s voice, the major attraction in this verismo programme, and very much to my taste, is the diversity of arias chosen, without focusing on the best-known. Opera devotees will surely have come across most or all of these composers. There are a number of famous operas with hit arias particularly Addio, del passato bei sogni rident (Farewell, happy dreams of the past) from Verdi’s La traviata and Un bel d, vedremo (One fine day, we will see) from Madama Butterfly by Puccini. I suggest that over half of the operas repesented here have failed to enter the standard repertory, and are seldom encountered in performance. Catalani’s final opera La Wally is only occasionally performed, yet its celebrated aria Ebben? Ne andr lontana (Well then? I’ll take off far away) is often included in recital performance. Of particular interest to me are a couple of operas that are scarcely ever staged, with arias that I heard for the first time: Ah! Il suo nome!… Flammen perdonami… (Ah! His name… Flammen forgive me) from Mascagni’s Lodoletta and the Giordano aria Nel suo amore rianimata (His love has reawakened) from Iris.

Jaho is in passionate form. She sings every aria commendably but there are three whose performances are worthy of particular praise. Jaho commences and ends her album with arias from Madama Butterfly, the title role of the young geisha that Storchio fittingly sang to end her career. The memorable stand-out is the opening aria, Butterfly’s celebrated Un bel d, vedremo (One fine day, we will see). In act two, Butterfly tries to convince maid Suzuki that her deceitful husband Pinkerton will come back for her. Producing deep yearning, Jaho persuasively communicates Butterfly’s deluded hopes. Without sounding especially girlish, she excels as the geisha’s gathering anguish rises quickly to the surface to conclude in a scorching emotional climax with the words …fede l'aspetto.

Verdi, Italy’s leading nineteenth-century opera composer is certainly not the first name associated with the verismo movement. Yet several of his operas are close to verismo. Elements of versimo are evident in three of his foremost accomplishments: Rigoletto, Il Trovatore and La traviata. Jaho includes an aria from La traviata. It is an opera of historical significance that contains a number of verismo aspects such as its contemporary setting, excess of ardent passion, the heroine Violetta a Parisian courtesan unsuitable to society with a prolonged, tragic ending. Last time I checked, La traviata topped the list of the most performed operas and the vastly experienced Jaho now has around two hundred and fifty performances of Violetta under her belt. She gives a simply breathtaking performance of Violetta’s farewell aria Addio, del passato bei sogni rident (Farewell, happy dreams of the past). Jaho gives an entirely heartrending account as the destitute and physically frail courtesan who knows she is dying from consumption, saying goodbye to happiness with Alfredo. Singing with riveting concentration, Jaho conveys an extreme sense of helplessness and weakening of the spirit. She can communivate profound emotion, and her well managed high register rings out radiantly.

Ther is here a valuable and gratifying discovery from Mascagni’s Lodoletta: the lengthy act three ‘death’ scene (also described as a ‘mad’ scene) - Ah! Il suo nome!… Flammen perdonami… (Ah! His name… Flammen forgive me!). Lodoletta, a nave fifteen-year-old Dutch girl is in love with artist Flammen. On New Year’s Eve, she treks in a snowstorm to Flammen’s Parisian villa, becoming delusional and hypothermic. At midnight Flammen goes outside to ring in the New Year only to discover Lodoletta’s dead body in the snow. Her fatality is the result of a terrible misunderstanding between the lovers. Jaho communicates successfully and empathically the suffering in Lodoletta’s dire situation leading up to her death. The interpretation is powerfully affecting and exhibits the soprano’s gift for voice control.

As far as debut albums are concerned, Anima Rara is an exceptional achievement. It is hard not to use superlatives. This collection was recorded at studio sessions, one aria at a time, yet it remains remarkable how Jaho manages to sustain an exalted level of emotional sincerity and focused energy and a blistering degree of intensity. Despite all the passion she generates, her aptitude for communicating ‘soft’ emotions such as vulnerability, subtlety and sensitivity are not to be underestimated. Overall, weaknesses are modest although a slightly hard edge to her voice is detectable, as is some minor strain when under pressure in these substantial verismo climaxes. Any adverse comments I have read concerning Jaho’s vibrato seem overstated. It is certainly not a feature that worries me or that I even notice. With Jaho, there is never even the merest whiff of routine. Her performances remain totally focused. She puts her heart and soul into every aria. Regretably, there are no duets and arias with chorus, programme elements that I believe provide additional interest in a recital collection.

Verona-born conductor Andrea Battistoni continues to make quite a name for himself on the international opera stage, conspicuously in demand with Romantic Italian repertoire. In 2013, I attended David Warner’s staging of Nabucco at Deutsche Oper Berlin. It was the first time I saw Battistoni conduct. He was then only in his mid-twenties. I made a mental note of this talented conductor who had already a year earlier conducted at Teatro alla Scala, Milan. Indeed, on this album Battistoni demonstrates his prowess with verismo repertoire. He conducts the alert and responsive Orquestra de la Comunitat Valenciana who produced a full, attractive sound.

This is a studio recording at Palau de les Arts Reina Sofia in Valencia. The engineering team of Steve Portnoi and Bertram Kornacher has provided first-class sound, balancing soloist ideally with the orchestra. As is the custom of Opera Rara, the overall presentation of the album is top drawer. Importantly, the booklet contains the sung Italian texts with English translations, and a helpful explanation of each aria in its context in the opera. There is an introductory note by Jaho and a helpful essay The Art of Rosina Storchio by musicologist Ditlev Rindom, who was involved in the curation of this album. Included too are historical photographs of Rosina Storchio and of Jaho at the Valencia recording sessions. Also welcome is Opera Rara’s switch to a suitably romantic cover image.

Every occasion I hear Ermonela Jaho sing, she embodies a total commitment to penetrate deep into the heart of the score. With her debut album Anima Rara, it seems futile to withstand the lure of this special soprano.

Michael Cookson

Giacomo PUCCINI (1858-1924)
1] Madama Butterfly - ‘Un bel d, vedremo’ [4.29]
Ruggero LEONCAVALLO (1857-1919)
2] La bohme - ‘Musette svaria sulla bocca viva’ [2.03]
Pietro MASCAGNI (1863-1945)
3] Iris - ‘Un d (ero piccina)’ [3.43]
Jules MASSENET (1842-1912)
4] Sapho - ‘Ces gens que je connais… Pendant un an je fus ta femme’ [3.26]
Arrigo BOITO (1842-1918)
5] Mefistofele - ‘L’altra notte in fondo al mare’ [7.01]
6] Lodoletta - ‘Ah! Il suo nome!… Flammen perdonami… No, non la sua casa… Bimbi del mio villaggio’ [12.08]
7] Manon - ‘Allons! Il le faut… Adieu, notre petite table’ [4.19]
Umberto GIORDANO (1867–1948)
8] Siberia - ‘No! Se un pensier… Nel suo amore rianimata’ [2.48]
Giuseppe VERDI (1813-1901)
9] La Traviata - ‘Teneste la promessa… Addio, del passato’ [8.18]
10] L’amico Fritz - ‘Son pochi fiori’ [3.11]
Alfredo CATALANI (1854-1893)
11] La Wally - ‘Ebben? Ne andr lontana’ [4.15]
12] La bohme - ‘Mim Pinson, la biondinetta’ [2.13]
13] Sapho - Prelude Act V and ‘Demain je partirai’ [9.21]
14] Madama Butterfly - ‘Con onor muore… Tu? Tu? Piccolo Iddio’ [2.49]

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