Emotional Catharsis: Ermonela Jaho and La traviata [The Royal Opera’s La traviata, 11-24 May 2010]

Written by: Mansel Stimpson

Mansel Stimpson talks to the Albanian soprano who once again takes the stage as Verdi’s Violetta Valéry…

Ermonela Jaho. Photograph provided by the Royal Opera

Many who come to have a real appreciation of music can look back to a childhood musical experience that left an indelible mark on them. Consequently, there seems nothing unique about the following recollection of going to the opera for the first time: “I was thirteen and I just went along without knowing anything about it – there was no kind of preparation. The opera was La traviata and I didn’t understand the whole story, but when the music commenced my heart started to beat rapidly. What I felt was something that I couldn’t explain in words but I knew that it was special.”

So it’s not these sentiments but the circumstances surrounding them that make for something exceptional, because the person offering this reminiscence is the Albanian singer Ermonela Jaho – for only four years later she would be making her professional debut in that very opera. She appeared as Violetta in a production performed in Tirana, her birthplace, the capital of Albania, with Violetta then becoming something of a signature role, one that has introduced her to many opera houses – including Marseille (2005) and brought her for the first time to both the Met and Covent Garden.

Although Ermonela does not come from a musical family – her father had a military post and her mother was a teacher – singing seems to have appealed to her from a very early age. She tells me how when six-years-old she participated in one of Albania’s festivals which featured competitive singing of all kinds, but at that time it was not classical music that beguiled her. On the contrary: “I hated opera singers at that time because I understood nothing of what they were doing and thought that they were always screaming. So that was not what I had in mind when I told my father that I wanted to study music. He agreed, and I won a competition to be in a music school at the age of thirteen. That was when I heard La traviata and came back home to talk to my brother. I said: ‘I’m going to be an opera singer’ and he made fun of me for that, thinking that what I wanted was to act like a prima donna. But it wasn’t that – it was the fact that something had touched me and had affected me emotionally in a very strong way. We Albanians are like Mediterranean people in the way that we are not given to understatement, and what I said to my brother was this: ‘I’m not going to die without singing Traviata’. So from then on I started to hear more opera and my training at the music school took that direction.”

Ermonela Jaho. Photograph provided by the Royal Opera

At this point fate took a hand. It was through being heard at the school that Ermonela was asked to make her professional debut and it was during that staging that the opportunity arose to take part in a competition that led her to complete her studies in Italy where, despite coming from a family that was not rich, she found the resources to enter and win vocal competitions in Milan, Ancona and Rovereto. It was then that this eighteen-year-old was confronted by the need to make a major decision. “I could either go back to my country and to my family or I could reach out for my dream. By then my love for music had become a passion and with Albania being a poor country with a lot of problems I found that my music was becoming my therapy. Even musically Albania was limiting. At that time the only operas you were likely to hear were Traviata, Cavalleria rusticana and Pagliacci, while the voice-training that usually began early at fourteen or fifteen was not necessarily healthy for the voice. However my teachers in concentrating on technical matters had made it clear to me that I could sing the high notes when required. Nevertheless when studying in Italy I came to feel really apart from all that and began to discover myself through my love of singing. In choosing not to return, there was a price to pay, and yet, paradoxically, it proved good for my art. Being away from your roots can involve a lot of suffering but it opens up emotions which you can then feed into your art – and unless you live the emotions of the characters you are playing people will not find you believable.”

As we continue to talk about Ermonela’s career and her attitude to her roles, it becomes increasingly apparent that the emotional aspect of her roles is crucial. This is even central to the way in which she looks back to her 17-year-old self appearing as Violetta for the first time. Inevitably there’s a subtlety and nuance that such a young singer cannot bring to the role but it was an achievement about which she still feels positive. “I did it then as I do it now, as though performing the role for the first and last time – and being so young then I seized that opportunity with a veritable passion. The passion was there from the beginning and, while you have to improve, you need to retain that passion in this kind of opera. You must never lose the fire.”

As befits a singer who first blossomed in Italy, Ermonela has Italian opera at the centre of her repertoire including works by Puccini, Donizetti, Bellini and Rossini as well as by Verdi. But, while Mozart has featured (Susanna in Figaro and Vitellia in La clemenza di Tito), the most prominent areas which feature outside the Italian repertoire are the French and the Russian. Among her French roles are Marguerite in Faust, the title role in Mireille and Micaela in Carmen and in rather different territory she has also appeared as Blanche in Dialogues des Carmelites. Massenet is a favourite too, with Manon and Sapho already in her repertoire and Thaïs upcoming in Toulon. As for the Russians, May Night, Sadko, Prokofiev’s Maddalena and Tchaikovsky’s The Maid of Orleans all feature. However, her comments on these choices suggest that the appeal resides less in some national element in the work than in the particular character she is to portray. “I do feel more connected with Italian and French opera, the latter being more delicate but still with a lot of passion. However, it’s all about the characters you take on: you have to love them and that is always my starting point. I prefer to give something of myself to a role so it’s not just about the music or the notes, even though it’s about that too. I study the character to find something in it that I can share, the point at which her sacrifice or her passion ignites something in me. I have done lighter roles as in La rondine and in my early days when I couldn’t choose I did a lot of lighter things from Handel to Don Pasquale and L’elisir d’amore. That was good for experience and for technique, but right now all the operas that I have are dramatic ones and I enjoy that so much.”

Ermonela Jaho as Violetta (Royal Opera, May 2010). Photograph: Johan Persson

Covent Garden came into her life in 2008 when her management told her that she was being asked to come over from New York where she was preparing Manon in order to replace an indisposed Anna Netrebko in La traviata. The circumstances may not have seemed propitious and indeed once she arrived regardless of jet-lag she had an immediate journey of ninety minutes from the airport and then straight into make-up. So why do it? “Covent Garden is the dream of opera singers so despite hesitating I felt that I must be strong and go for it. And, in fact, I did four performances and it was a success. Sometimes when you go in at the last moment like that and even if you make a good impression all you get at the end is ‘okay, thank you’. But it was not like that here. I have to say that I appreciated the trust that the casting director Peter Katona placed in me and then there was the fact that he suggested that I return to do this latest revival of it.”

This production is the well-loved and well-established one by Richard Eyre and on this occasion the revival director is Paul Higgins (in 2008 it was Patrick Young). Now, as then, Dmitri Hvorostovsky sings the role of Giorgio Germont, the father of Alfredo whose transforming love for Violetta the former courtesan is the main focus in a story that is at once clear-cut yet open to different interpretations of detail and characterisation. For Ermonela the big difference now is having proper time to prepare. She’s pleased to find in Paul a co-operative director who is ready to change details around. “I regard that as intelligent because you have to adapt things to the singer that you have – there may be something that somebody else does in a certain way but that is not good for me, so by adapting it a little it becomes more believable. In particular there are some different stresses in the last scene this time. In this production when Violetta is dying she has a cross by her and a bible but we want to suggest her giving way to anger because not even God, in whom she had placed her trust, has come to her rescue but has instead denied her the chance to be happy. So certain details will highlight that. Of course, changes of another kind come from the rapport that singers share and which is individual to them. I did Traviata with Hvorostovsky in Italy as well as Covent Garden in 2008, but with Saimir Pirgu, the Alfredo in this revival, it is the first time that we have worked together, although he’s Albanian, too. He’s really young but we share the same kind of approach, the same passion and feeling born of coming from the same background, and he’s a true colleague.”

It is part of the fascination of La traviata that the story leaves room for speculation about the motivations of the characters, not least in the case of Violetta herself. She is amazed to find in Alfredo someone who appears to love her truly, but how cynical has her life as a courtesan made her and how difficult is it for her to trust a man? When Act Two opens it is three months on from her eventual decision and she is living with Alfredo, but the end of the preceding Act has found her still clinging to her old way of life. Does her known bad health play a part in her resistance to love and does her religious outlook diminish her chance of happiness because of her concern that the Church would not approve of her life with Alfredo? “At the end of the first Act she’s still thinking about her old life: she’s fighting with herself. There are many, many sides to her life and it’s a case of conflicting emotions. Then in the second Act she knows that society, of which Alfredo’s father is a part, has judged her, so maybe that’s her destiny and she can’t escape it. Yet, inside, she’s this amazing, wonderful person and so generous.”

Does this complexity and the place that the opera has played in Ermonela’s life make Violetta her favourite role? “I prefer not to have favourites. I love this, but I love Madama Butterfly too. But because I’ve done Violetta so often I feel that she and I are growing each time and new discoveries always arise. My philosophy is that every day we are a day older and that every day you can experience new emotions which help you to make those discoveries. I love those parts marked by strong feelings, and that’s why one day I want to sing Norma.”

It may or may not be an exaggeration to suggest that the enclosed, repressive aspect of life in Albania was what provided the crucial fire in making Ermonela the artist she is. Of course, to do as well as she has done, you have to have the voice and the technique, but again and again it’s opera’s ability to express and release emotions that comes to the fore in what Ermonela has to say. “I would actually like to die on-stage because in life I am reserved and I can’t always express what I feel despite having had my own experiences in life. But as Butterfly or Traviata I can feel a release because in that context I maybe do something that I can’t do in life. I go for the strong emotion and on-stage I am another person. It’s cathartic. Sometimes when I’ve done a lot of these huge parts close together my management ask if I’m tired after the performance, but for me it’s like medicine. It’s something that I need and that I can’t live without. Maybe in saying that I sound like some kid just starting out, but I just know that I can’t do without it.”

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