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In her first solo album, Ermonela Jaho pays homage to the soprano who inspired Puccini and a host of other verismo composers.

Music needs to speak from the soul!’ exclaims Ermonela Jaho. The soprano certainly gives her all, and audiences respond with fervour. Witness her debut recital at Wigmore Hall in January this year, where a packed house lapped up Jaho’s impassioned performances of verismo arias, many of which feature on her first solo album, Anima Rara, released by Opera Rara.

Like the concert, the album is centred around pieces performed by the great Rosina Storchio (1872-1945), an Italian soprano whose career flourished in the early years of the 20th century and who created several major roles for the leading composers of the day, such as Leoncavallo’s Zazà, Mascagni’s Lodoletta and most famously Cio-Cio-san in Puccini’s Madama Butterfly in 1904. ‘Storchio was a pure lyric soprano which is why composers such as Puccini loved her so much,’ Jaho explains. ‘Her voice wasn’t big and loud. Many of the roles she sang concentrated on the drama rather than the size of the instrument. Puccini wrote that after her debut as Butterfly Storchio wanted to leave, but without her it would be a “work without soul”.’ So Jaho and Opera Rara thought that it would be an interesting way to hear this music – with verismo it is not just decibels: ‘Everything has to be in service to giving the emotion. Storchio was a muse for so many sopranos.’

Jaho points out that when she first announced she would sing Butterfly, she was constantly told by musicians whose views she respected that she needed more volume. But when she looked at the score she knew it was for her: ‘I had an epiphany: this girl is fifteen years old, the drama makes the connection. I feel I am still learning the role, with different productions and conductors. I was a bit afraid at first, so I’ve learnt step by step and now I feel more comfortable. There are so many dynamics in the role, Puccini wrote so many pianissimi and the music needs to speak to people.’ The aria ‘Un bel dì’ is on the album, and Jaho certainly develops Cio- Cio-san’s emotions with detail and clarity.

I ask Jaho about the comparisons between her voice and Storchio’s, and she makes it very clear that the album is a homage and not an attempt to replicate Storchio’s sound, which from her small recorded legacy was a lighter and brighter timbre than Jaho’s more shaded vocal qualities. Listen to Storchio sing ‘Mimì Pinson’ from Leoncavallo’s La bohème, which she dispatches with charm and humour, relishing the text while being somewhat reckless with her chest voice. As Jaho points out, ‘she really highlights the words and you feel a hundred per cent commitment. But she wanted to go heavier and heavier and took on roles like Tosca, which is why she couldn’t keep it up. We have to find a balance and see how far you can go while respecting why a composer wrote certain things as they did.’

I ask Jaho how she brings her vivid performing style to the recording studio. ‘I miss the audience and the energy of the public, but I get involved with the music and move with it. You do have to repeat phrases over and over, and it’s tiring; but I have a great connection with the conductor Andrea Battistoni. He loves verismo, has an ideal sensibility for this music and is a great leader. We formed a family, all heading in the same direction. Besides, the orchestra [the Orquestra de la Comunitat Valenciana] is also my public’ she laughs. ‘They know everything – every mistake!’

So what next for Jaho as she develops and extends her repertoire? ‘I still warm up with bel canto,’ she says, ‘but now I am also moving beyond a purely lyric sound.’ She obviously adores the death scene from Mascagni’s Lodoletta that held her audience spellbound at Wigmore Hall and also makes a huge impact on Anima Rara. ‘It drives me crazy and it would be great to record the complete opera. It is a role like Suor Angelica where you have to be credible – just the sound is not enough, you have to give everything.’

Francis Muzzu Read the full review on Agora Classica


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