Ermonela Jaho, an Albanian soprano, “Can Sing Your Music”


Nedda, the main female character of Leoncavallo’s “Pagliacci”, must die rather than consummate true love. The soprano Ermonela Jahowho is making her debut in the role at the Royal Opera House in London this month, discovered that the character is more complex than she initially thought.

“She is strong enough to fight to the death for her freedom,” Ms Jaho said in a phone interview. “She never loses the light inside her.”

The 48-year-old Albanian soprano won over audiences on both sides of the Atlantic with the depth and authenticity of her interpretations, particularly in the realism of “verism” works of Verdi and Puccini. Her portrayal of the character Violetta in ‘La Traviata’ is a landmark role that brought her into the international spotlight after arriving on short notice at the Royal Opera House in 2008. (She will return to Verdi’s work at the Metropolitan Opera in January). The London stage also made her debut as Suor Angelica in Puccini’s ‘Il Trittico’, which she will sing at Barcelona’s Gran Teatre del Liceu in December.

Mrs Jaho has been chosen to appear in the documentary “Fuoco Sacro”, currently airing on the Franco-German television channel art. Next April, she will return to the Royal Opera to sing the role of Liù in Puccini’s “Turandot” which she recorded for the Warner Classics label under the baton of Antonio Pappano.

And at the Royal Opera from Tuesday to July 20, the public will have the chance to discover her in Damiano Michieletto double bill of “Pagliacci” and “Cavalleria Rusticana” by Mascagni, seen for the first time in 2015.

Mr Pappano, the Royal Opera’s long-time music director, pointed to a winning combination of empathy and strength in Ms Jaho’s performances. “She’s sensitive to every curve of every sentence and every situation the character finds herself in — heartbreaking situations as well,” he said in a phone interview. “But she also has that steely determination, which she must have in ‘Suor Angelica’ and, in particular, ‘Madame Butterfly’.”

“She’s able,” he said, “with her voice and her acting — which is so detailed and so nuanced — to make you cry. She’s very generous when she’s there. She never saves for nothing.

In “Pagliacci”, the role of soprano demands enormous flexibility and amplitude. The story focuses on a theater troupe in Calabria in the 19th century. The work creates a metadramatic tightrope when Nedda’s husband, Canio, avenges her infidelity in both stage comedy and with a villager.

“It’s absolutely essential verismo,” said the conductor. “Sometimes the part is almost spoken, then it gets pushed and dramatic.”

Ms. Jaho sees a challenge in conveying the complexity of her character in the two-act drama. “You have to play all these cards, all these emotions, and be read by the public in a short time,” she said.

The soprano began to assimilate Italian culture at 17, when she was chosen by the soprano Katia Ricciarelli study at his academy in Mantua, Italy. Ms Jaho then enrolled at the Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia in Rome, where she studied with Valerio Paperi. She was also coached on the side by the bass Paolo Montarsolo.

“I wanted to prove to everyone that even though I’m from Albania, I can speak your language, I can sing your music,” said Ms Jaho, who now lives in New York.

Growing up in a country behind the Iron Curtain, the soprano struggled in Italy with culture shock and estrangement from her family. She also had to do odd jobs, babysit and care for the elderly. “But I always had in mind that if the dream is big, maybe the sacrifices and the hardships will be too,” she said.

She inherited a gift for mindfulness from her father, who was a military officer and professor of philosophy: “Sometimes you feel hopeless, because life is not always beautiful. He told me that nothing is impossible. And you have to work hard.

Ms Jaho considers it fate that she starred in ‘La Traviata’ after falling in love with the opera in her hometown of Albania’s capital Tirana at age 14. It was her first experience with live opera, and she swore to her older brother that she would sing the character before she died.

To date, she has sung the role of Violetta 301 times. She said the role had become “richer in life experience” and remained “like a dream for my voice”.

“In a way, it pushes me to stay in shape,” she said.

Last fall, she added the lead character from Cilea’s “Adriana Lecouvreurto his repertoire, with performances at the Vienna State Opera. She also sings French-language works such as “Thaïs” by Massenet. But she’s not aiming to play roles she doesn’t have a natural affinity for.

“It’s not because I don’t like challenges,” she says. “But sometimes you need to know what kind of battles you want to win.”

Since 2012, she has given master classes to students both in her home country of Albania and in cities such as London, Paris and Sydney, Australia. “Today’s younger generation wants to go so easily,” she observed. “They think it’s enough to put your face on social media – which we also need – but only with some balance.”

She pointed out that the Covid era had highlighted the vulnerability of the profession: “We discovered that we are nothing, the opera houses were closed. It really has to be the love of your gut.

Ms. Jaho expresses childlike joy in front of Mr. Michieletto’s staging, which for her captures “all the details and all the flavors” of southern Italy. “You forget you’re the artist singing the character,” she said. “You become the character because everything around you contributes to it.”

The director also weaves the two short operas by having characters from “Pagliacci” appear on stage during “Cavalleria Rusticana” and vice versa. “Everything makes sense,” she said. “Their hate, their love. You don’t understand the difference at the end, even though they are different composers.

And just as Leoncavallo’s opera reveals the fluid boundaries between art and life, Ms Jaho says she believes a singer must be “real on stage” in order to serve the music. “If you don’t cry and love and smile like yourself,” she said, “you can’t give to the public.”


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