Thursday 8 October 2020

Rarity & intensity: Ermonela Jaho's debut recital, Anima Rara, explores repertoire associated with her great predecessor Rosina Storchio

Anima Rara - Puccini, Verdi, Boito, Catalini, Giordano, Leoncavallo, Mascagni, Massenet; Ermonela Jaho,Orquestra de la Comunitat Valenciana, Andrea Battistoni; Opera Rara

Anima Rara
- Puccini, Verdi, Boito, Catalini, Giordano, Leoncavallo, Mascagni, Massenet; Ermonela Jaho,Orquestra de la Comunitat Valenciana, Andrea Battistoni; Opera Rara

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 6 October 2020 Star rating: 4.5 (★★★★½)
The Albanian soprano's debut recital sees her exploring a wide variety of vocal styles in her tribute to the great Italian soprano Rosina Storchio

The Italian soprano Rosina Storchio (1872-1945) is best known for creating the title role in Puccini's Madama Butterfly, but she was in fact associated with a number of contemporary Italian composers as well as having a repertory which was remarkably wide, incorporating not just Verismo works but Massenet, Weber, and Mozart as well as Italian composers of the bel canto era.

This new disc from Opera Rara, with soprano Ermonela Jaho, the Orquestra de la Comunitat Valenciana and Andrea Battistoni, draws together a whole range of roles associated with Storchio. Anima Rara is Jaho's debut disc, and on it she sings excerpts from Puccini's Madama Butterfly and Verdi's La traviata, as well as music operas by Boito (Mefistofele), Catalini (La Wally), Giordano (Siberia), Leoncavallo (La bohème), Mascagni (Iris, Lodoletta and L’amico Fritz) and Massenet (Manon and Sapho)

We start with Madama Butterfly which not a conspicuous success at its premiere in 1904, though Rosina Storchio's performance in the title role was praised. Here Ermonela Jaho sings the Act II aria, 'Un bel di, vedremo' with fragile-sounding tone but with a core of strength. Certainly, she does not sound 16, but she gives us beautifully shape, long phrases and a strong sense of emotion. You don't at first think that Jaho will have the power for the climaxes, but she certainly does.

Recording sessions - Ermonela Jaho, Orquestra de la Comunitat Valenciana - Valencia, 2019 (Photo Simon Weir)
Recording sessions - Ermonela Jaho, Orquestra de la Comunitat Valenciana - Valencia, 2019
(Photo Simon Weir)

Leoncavallo's La Boheme premiered in 1897 a year after Puccini's opera, and Storchio played Leoncavallo's Mimi. In the delightful aria 'Musette svaria sulla bocca viva', Mimi describes Musetta's character; it is a light, perky number which Jaho delivers with great charm.  A year later, Mascagni's Iris premiered with a Japanese-themed libretto which pre-figured Madama Butterfly. Iris is a richly intense work, and Jaho delivers Iris' second act aria 'Un dì (ero piccina)' as a slow build, starting low-key but urgent and building until the touching climax. The opera's libretto is full of symbolist touches, and here an image of a young woman attacked by an octopus hints at the sexual violence in the plot.

Massenet's Sapho (1897) is another of those operas which deal with the 'issue' of fallen women; though Storchio's performances were praised, the opera itself did not do well in Italy. We hear Fanny's 'Ces gens que je connais... Pendant un an je fus ta femme' from Act IV, in which she rejects her past life and begs her lover to return. This is certainly a change in style, and though Jaho's delivery of the French text is commendable, it comes over as less word-based than her Italian. However, she is very expressive with lovely fragile tone and some fabulous floated high notes.

Boito's Mefistofele dated from 1868 (revised 1875) but the roles of Elena and Margherita were ones Storchio would return to. Here we hear Margherita's 'L’altra notte in fondo al mare' from Act III. A melancholy, atmospheric orchestral prelude leads to an aria which Jaho delivers with a fine combination of intensity, delicacy and power.

Mascagni's Lodoletta (1917) has virtually disappeared from the repertory. Based on Ouida's story Two Little Wooden Shoes (which was considered by Puccini), we hear Lodoletta's long Act III scene where she is in the snow, looking at her lover dancing and thinking he has forgotten her. She dies. It is completely barmy, and perfectly understandable that the opera has disappeared, yet Jaho's commitment and daring make the scene work, and she brings a terrific sense of story-telling to the music.

With Massenet's Manon we return to better known works. In Manon's Act II aria, Jaho creates a character out of expressive fragility, a vibrato-led line, and shapely phrases. Perhaps she sounds more mature than Manon's 16 years, more self-aware, but this is classy stuff. 

Giordano's Siberia (based on Tolstoy) is seriously unusual repertory. It premiered in 1903, not long before Madama Butterfly, and pops up only very occasionally. The first performance received mixed reviews, but Storchio's performance as Stephana was praised. Here, we hear Stephana's Act I aria, 'No! Se un pensier… Nel suo amore rianimata', sung with an expressively unfolding line.

We are on more familiar ground with Violetta's 'Teneste la promessa... Addio, del passato' from Act III of Verdi's La Traviata. Jaho is remarkably strong in the spoken text, and then crowns this with a dramatic, word-based performance where Violetta's illness vies with an inner strength. Mascagni's L'Amico Fritz (1891) has never achieved the success of his previous opera, Cavalleria Rusticana, though Jaho brings great charm to Suzel's 'Son pochi fiori'. The role indicates Storchio's remarkable vocal range, as she was performing it at the same time as singing Santuzza in Cavalleria Rusticana.

'Ebben? Ne andrò lontana' remains the single, best-known part of Catalani's 1892 opera La Wally, sung her with touching intensity. We then return to Leoncavallo's La Boheme with an aria for Musette, 'Mimì Pinson, la biondinetta' which describes Mimi; a charming and very seductive waltz. Then comes another excerpt from Massenet's Sapho, from the final act with Fanny preparing to return to her old life in the demi-monde. A finely dramatic scene, which Jaho imbues with intense emotion. 

The disc ends, of course, with Madama Butterfly, with 'Con onor muore... Tu? Tu? Piccolo Iddio' from Act III where Jaho shows that she knows how to convey Butterfly's delicacy whilst having the real power needed for the arias closing sections.

Throughout, the recording captures Jaho's voice admirably. It is a vibrato-led instrument, but this never dominates, and we can hear the clear, expressive core. The acoustic feels relatively close, yet natural sounding. Throughout the disc the Orquestra de la Comunitat Valenciana and Andrea Battistoni made admirable partners, giving us some finely atmospheric orchestral playing.

Jaho's sense of commitment and identification to any role means that this recital rises well above a simple trawl through favourite arias. Each has an intensity of emotion which is clearly in character, and the selection of lesser known arias intrigues and the whole makes for a highly satisfying tribute to Jaho's great predecessor.

Anima Rara
Arias by Puccini (Madama Butterfly), Verdi (La traviata), Boito (Mefistofele), Catalini (La Wally), Giordano (Siberia), Leoncavallo (La bohème), Mascagni (Iris, Lodoletta and L’amico Fritz) and Massenet (Manon and Sapho).
Ermonela Jaho (soprano)
Orquestra de la Comunitat Valenciana
Andrea Battistoni (conductor)
Recorded at the Palau de les Arts Reina Sofia, Valencia, November 2019
Opera Rara ORR253 1CD

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