Three years ago the Albanian soprano Ermonela Jaho was virtually unknown in Britain.
Word began to filter out when she was flown in at twenty-four hours’ notice to stand in as Violetta for a sick Anna Netrebko in Covent Garden’s ‘La traviata’, and she did the part proud. Last autumn she was drafted in – again very late – to substitute for an ‘indisposed’ Anja Harteros in the title role of the ROH’s ‘Suor Angelica’, and her incarnation of the nun driven to suicide by news of her stolen child’s death was almost unbearably moving.
Now she’s back as Violetta in the third cast of the eighteenth revival of Richard Eyre’s sturdy production of Verdi’s tragedy. The first cast – led by Marina Poplavskaya as an armour-clad Violetta and James Valenti as an underpowered Alfredo - lacked stage chemistry. But from the moment Ermonela Jaho meets her Alfredo in the form of Stephen Costello in her glittering salon, you sense the electricity between them.
Jaho is both commanding and vulnerable as the convalescent heroine, and her dark, veiled sound creates a sense of time-warp: we’re not revisiting the era of Amelita Galli-Curci, but we’re definitely going in that direction. Jaho’s gestures and attitudes have an expressive grace for which Costello’s airy, boyish lyricism makes the ideal foil. And Jaho uses her first big aria to engage us powerfully in her predicament: this woman, you feel, really does know the toughness of life on the wrong side of the tracks.
But in Act Two she encounters Paolo Gavanelli as Alfredo’s father Germont: alas. The great scene in which she is persuaded to renounce her love should reflect a subtle emotional journey, but while Jaho breaks the heart – it’s like watching the life being crushed out of a bird - Gavanelli just booms on without even looking at her: how could any director permit such antique stand-and-deliver stuff? But with Germont gone, Jaho takes over with awe-inspiring authority. I have never seen the physical and psychological reality of untimely death portrayed as terrifyingly – and with singing of such harrowing beauty - as here. When Anna Netrebko returns to this role on January 17, she’ll have a hard act to follow. But in Maurizio Benini she’ll have the same excellent conductor.