Opera Album Review: Ermonela Jaho, a Soprano We Need Today

By Ralph P. Locke

A world-star soprano, in her magnificent prime at age 36, offers her first recital CD, and you can participate in its online “launch.”

Anima Rara  — opera arias by Puccini, Massenet, Mascagni, Leoncavallo, Giordano, Catalani, Verdi, and Boito

Ermonela Jaho, soprano

Orquesetra de la Comunitat Valenciana, cond. Andrea Battistoni

Opera Rara ORR253 — 70 minutes

Click here to purchase

The opera world is always on the lookout for sopranos (and tenors) who can sing gorgeously and create a credible character on stage. Ermonela Jaho, Albanian-born and Italian-trained, now 46, has already made quite a splash in leading roles at major opera houses. She can be seen in DVDs of Verdi’s La Traviata and of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly and Il trittico from the Royal Opera Covent Garden. On CD she can be heard in two lesser-known works (likewise Italian) from the late 19th century: Leoncavallo’s Zazà and Puccini’s Le Willis (his very first opera). Critic Michael Church, in The Independent, declared: “Her long solo in which hope contends with fear has us hanging on every bar. She is the best Madama B that London has seen in years.”

Now Jaho has come out with her first disc of opera arias, and they are cannily chosen to show off what, apparently, she does best: apply her bright, steady, focused soprano voice to highly dramatic roles in which she can wring our hearts.

You can get a sense of her artistry —  a rare combination of intensity and delicacy — in this eight-minute trailer for the recording:

The repertory on the CD is drawn from roles associated with the great Rosina Storchio (1872-1945), who was Puccini’s first Cio-Cio-San in Madama Butterfly. The disc begins and ends with two of that character’s big arias. In between, we hear relatively well-known solos (there are no assisting singers on the disc) from La traviata, Boito’s Mefistofele, and Catalani’s La Wally (the famous aria that was on the stolen tape cassette in the 1981 French film Diva), as well as powerful excerpts from lesser-known works, including Giordano’s Siberia, Leoncavallo’s La Bohème (the “other” opera based on that French novel), and Mascagni’s Iris (the “other” Italian opera set in Japan). Listening to each of the lesser-known arias makes me eager to hear the work it comes from. (I’ve tried Mefistofele, to little effect in past years, but maybe it wasn’t as vividly rendered as the one aria is on this CD.) The disc’s title — literally: Rare Soul (or Spirit) — is apt in many ways: this is a rare (precious) and spirited (soulful) rendering of pieces, some of which are themselves rare and all of which are full of spirit or soul!

The tracks are cannily arranged so there aren’t too many hyper-intense ones in a row. Among the lighter items are the Boito and two delicious excerpts from Leoncavallo’s La Bohème, in one of which Musette (the character known as Musetta in the equivalent opera by Puccini) describes her friend Mimì, and the other in which Mimì expresses her appreciation for Musette. The numbers from Massenet operas (one from the much-loved Manon, two from the little-heard Sapho) also help vary the feeling-tone. As with the Butterfly arias, the two excerpts from Sapho are not placed consecutively on the disc, nor are the two two-minute Leoncavallo ariettas. All of this helps keep things fresh and testifies to excellent judgment on the part of Opera Rara and its staff and advisors (the latter include noted Donizetti-Verdi-Puccini authority Roger Parker).

You can hear the beginnings of each of the tracks here. The orchestra (headquartered in Valencia, Spain) is smallish — for example, six cellos — so the strings don’t sound lush. But everyone follows conductor Battistoni’s fine guidance alertly. The oboist, Pierre Antoine Escoffier, stands out for subtle elegance. (About half of the string players have Eastern European names, so this isn’t quite a “Spanish” orchestra.)

Ermonela Jaho as Cio-Cio-San in  the Royal Opera Covent Garden’s 2017 production of Madama Butterfly. Photo: ROH

Opera Rara has achieved well-justified appreciation in the musical world for their intelligent and well-researched recordings of forgotten works (or excerpts) from the 19th and early 20th centuries. They were long underwritten by the Peter Moores Foundation and now receive generous support from five trusts and foundations and several dozen donors, whose names are all listed in the booklet. Speaking of the booklet, it is a model of its kind, with an excellent essay and work-discussions by musicologist Ditlev Rindom and full texts and translations. Plus vivid photos from rehearsals and recording sessions.

Note: On Thursday, September 24, a day before the CD is officially released, you can participate in the disc’s online launch, asking the soprano questions. This will surely be a festive occasion, and one that opera lovers may enjoy attending, at a moment when live performances here in the US have largely been cancelled because of the pandemic. (The European Continent, which — aside from Spain — was notably successful at tamping down the coronavirus, is now moving back toward scheduling live performances under careful conditions.) Just click on Opera Rara’s Facebook page. You can even type a question for Ermonela Jaho to answer. Send it in advance to Macbeth Media Twitter (or Instagram). Or, during the launch, type it into Chat. The launch lasts from 6 to 7 p.m., British Standard Time, which is 1-2 p.m. Eastern Daylight Time. Here is the link to the online launch:

Zoom meeting details for Anima Rara launch on Thursday 24 September from 6-7 p.m. BST:

Meeting ID: 872 2779 6976 Passcode: 904015

This is certainly an intriguing new way to interact with an important and still youngish performer. And you won’t need to wear a mask!

Ralph P. Locke is emeritus professor of musicology at the University of Rochester’s Eastman School of Music. Six of his articles have won the ASCAP-Deems Taylor Award for excellence in writing about music. His most recent two books are Musical Exoticism: Images and Reflections and Music and the Exotic from the Renaissance to Mozart (both Cambridge University Press). Both are now available in paperback; the second, also as an e-book. Ralph Locke also contributes to American Record Guide and to the online arts-magazines New York Arts, Opera Today, and The Boston Musical Intelligencer. His articles have appeared in major scholarly journals, in Oxford Music Online (Grove Dictionary), and in the program books of major opera houses, e.g., Santa Fe (New Mexico), Wexford (Ireland), Glyndebourne, Covent Garden, and the Bavarian State Opera (Munich).

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