Monday, 3 February 2020

An evening with Rosina Storchio - Ermonela Jaho's Wigmore Hall debut celebrates Opera Rara's 50th anniversary

Rosina Storchio
Rosina Storchio
An evening with Rosina Storchio - Leoncavallo, Bellini, Donizetti, Verdi, Cilea, Tosti, Toscanini, Mascagni, Gounod, Bizet, Massenet, GIordano; Ermonela Jaho, Steven Maughan; Wigmore Hall
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 2 February 2020 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
A rare recital appearance by the Albanian soprano gives us an intimate portrait of the soprano who premiered Puccini's Madama Butterfly

On Sunday 2 February 2020, a packed Wigmore Hall (standing-room only) witnessed soprano Ermonela Jaho, with Steven Maughan piano, make a rare recital appearance (and her Wigmore Hall debut) to launch Opera Rara's 50th anniversary year. In An evening with Rosina Storchio, Jaho performed songs and arias associated with the Italian lyric soprano Rosina Storchio who sang the title role in the premiere of Puccini's Madama Butterfly and who would premiere operas by Mascagni, Giordano and Leoncavallo (including Zazà, which Jaho recorded for Opera Rara in 2016, see my review).

For Sunday's recital, Ermonela Jaho sang arias from operas associated with Storchio, Leoncavallo's La Boheme and Zazà, Mascagni's Iris,  and L'amico Fritz, Giordano's Siberia, and Massenet's Sapho and Manon. And the evening concluded with the substantial death scene from Mascagni's opera Lodoletta which Storchio premiered in Rome in 1917 with Mascagni conducting.

But Storchio was not just associated with contemporary Verismo composers, she performed the title role in Verdi's La traviata in the first production at La Scala, Milan to set the opera in contemporary dress, and was a renowned interpreter of such roles as Amina in Bellini's La sonnambula (one of Storchio's few recordings is of Amina's 'Ah! non giunge'), the title role in Donizetti's Linda di Chamounix and Norina in Donizetti's Don Pasquale, as well as performing in Gounod's Faust and early appearances as Micaela in Bizet's Carmen.

In order to move the evening away from simply a sequence of operatic excerpts, Jaho and Maughan performed not arias but songs by these composers, plus a selection of other songs by Cilea and Tosti, as well as, rather fascinatingly, a song by the conductor Arturo Toscanini with whom Storchio had a relationship. Puccini was represented by his early song Sole e amore which gives a pre-echo of music from Act Three of his La Boheme, but as an encore Jaho performed, of course, 'Un bel di' from Madama Butterfly.

Steven Maughan, Ermonela Jaho, Henry Little (chief executive of Opera Rara) at Wigmore Hall (Photo Russell Duncan)
Steven Maughan, Ermonela Jaho, Henry Little (chief executive of Opera Rara) at Wigmore Hall (Photo Russell Duncan)
As we found with the late, lamented Rosenblatt Recitals, not every opera singer easily makes the transition to the recital hall. On stage, Ermonela Jaho is an immensely dramatic and compelling performer, and in the smaller confines of the Wigmore Hall her powerful stage presence brought the operatic excerpts alive.
An immensely physical performer, each aria created a vivid stage picture of the character, and this told for a lot in the less well known pieces. The final, 13-minute death scene from Leoncavallo's Lodoletta might be dramatically barmy [artist's model tramps through the snow to see her dying former love, sees him dancing with another woman, thinks he has forgotten her and flees without saying anything and dies of frostbite!], but Jaho made it musically and dramatically compelling, making us temporarily forget the dramatic ineptitude in the face of such highly emotive performing.

Vocally she is master of the high, spun pianissimo and arias such as 'Pendant un an je fus ta femme' from Massenet's Sapho played to her strengths with floated high pianissimi and delicately spun lines. For all the intensity of Jaho's performances, her voice has the ability to convey delicacy and fragility, which makes her perfect for Storchio's many roles as wronged and fallen women! 'Un di ero piccina' from Mascagni's Iris might not be musically compelling, but Jaho brought out the emotional complexity of the character. And we started with the delightful 'Musette svaria sulla boca viva' from Leoncavallo's La boheme, sung by the other Mimi!

Vocally, Jaho relies heavily on warming the voice with vibrato, and in her middle range we become more aware of this fact. With the songs, which rarely went into Jaho's high register, you felt that they did not quite play to her strengths and as she performed these in a highly emoted manner, the result could sometimes seem rather mannered. The best moments were when she opted for simplicity, such as the lightly charming Serenade by Gounod. Her diction and attention to language seemed to be secondary to her concern over the vocal line, but with song words are important, even in a Bellini canzonetta. That she had not quite settled to performing in the smaller venue with just a piano for support was suggested by the occasional moment which was under the note.


At its best this concert gave us some compelling drama, and whilst many of the roles that Rosina Storchio premiered are, rightly, rarely revived Ermonela Jaho and Steven Maughan bravely gave us a fully rounded musical portrait of the performer. This was a chance to hear some rare early 20th century Italian operatic repertoire in intimate circumstances and with compelling performances. A fine way to start Opera Rara's 50th birthday celebrations.

Ermonela Jaho has recorded her first recital disc, Homage to Rosina Storchio with the Orquestra de la Comunitat Valenciana, conducted by Andrea Battistoni, which will be released by Opera Rara in September 2020.

The next event in Opera Rara's 50th birthday celebrations will be in June 2020 when Carlo Rizzi will conducted a concert performance of Donizetti's Il furiosos all'isola di San Domingo (in a new edition) with the Britten Sinfonia at the Barbican.


An Evening with Rosina Storchio
Ruggero Leoncavallo (1857-1919) - Musette svaria sulla bocca viva (La bohème)
Vincenzo Bellini (1801-1835) - Vaga luna, che inargenti; Malinconia, ninfa gentile
Gaetano Donizetti (1797-1848) - Venne sull'ale ai zeffiri
Giuseppe Verdi (1813-1901) - In solitaria stanza; Brindisi
Ruggero Leoncavallo - Valse coquette
Ruggero Leoncavallo - Mamma? Io non l'ho avuta mai (Zazà)
Francesco Cilea (1866-1950) - Non ti voglio amar
Paolo Tosti (1846-1916) - Tristezza
Arturo Toscanini (1867-1957) - Nevrosi
Pietro Mascagni (1863-1945) - Un dì ero piccina (Iris)
Pietro Mascagni - Son pochi fiori (L'amico Fritz)
Charles Gounod (1818-1893) - Sérénade 'Chantez, riez, dormez'
Georges Bizet (1838-1875) - Chanson d'avril Op. 21 No. 1
Jules Massenet (1842-1912) - Pendant un an je fus ta femme (Sapho)
Jules Massenet - Allons! Il le faut ... Adieu, notre petite table (Manon)
Umberto Giordano (1867-1948) - Valzer serenata
Giacomo Puccini (1858-1924) - Sole e amore
Umberto Giordano - Nel suo amore rianimata (Siberia)
Pietro Mascagni - Flammen perdonami (Lodoletta)

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