One of the great jump-ins at Covent Garden happened almost eleven years ago to the day. Imagine the general disappointment, the wailing and gnashing of teeth when an indisposed Anna Netrebko withdrew from La traviata in January 2008, replaced by a relatively unheard of Albanian soprano, who flew in overnight from New York. Ermonela Jaho not only saved the day; she triumphed, becoming an instant house favourite, returning many times. And it’s as Violetta that she returns once more in this 16th revival of Richard Eyre’s sympathetic, stylish – and seemingly indestructible – production.

Ermonela Jaho (Violetta) © ROH | Catherine Ashmore
Ermonela Jaho (Violetta)
© ROH | Catherine Ashmore

The Royal Opera loves to make Ermonela Jaho suffer: Violetta, Mimì, Manon, Madama Butterfly, Suor Angelica all perish. Only as Magda in La rondine have they ever permitted her to stay alive to the final curtain. The first wispy violin notes in the Prelude seemed to anticipate her fragile tone here, a courtesan doomed from the outset. Jaho’s is not a glamorous soprano voice. It’s not really ideally suited for Verdi, where spinto power and smooth legato are coveted qualities. Yet Jaho’s Violetta is so much more than bel canto technique; it’s about inhabiting the role, plunging herself into the Parisian demimonde.

Ermonela Jaho (Violetta) and Charles Castronovo (Alfredo) © ROH | Catherine Ashmore
Ermonela Jaho (Violetta) and Charles Castronovo (Alfredo)
© ROH | Catherine Ashmore

She is a true vocal artist: beautifully spun filati in “Ah fors'è lui”; a delicious, lovesick sigh on “delizia al cor”; a mere thread of tone to open “Dite alla giovine”; a haunting, haunted “Addio del passato”. True, she manages the coloratura in Act 1 gingerly, rather than conveying a sense of giddy recklessness, but everything else ticks my Traviata checklist. There’s a nobility and dignity about her Violetta, a proud woman who so wants to be liked by Germont père that she has to physically summon all her strength to challenge his outrageous demands in their confrontation. By Act 3, despite the fragility, there is also a radiance to her Violetta. When she suddenly feels the pain cease, I even harboured the brief thought that, this time, Violetta may just survive.

Ermonela Jaho (Violetta) © ROH | Catherine Ashmore
Ermonela Jaho (Violetta)
© ROH | Catherine Ashmore

There’s always the danger that such a class act will eclipse everything and everyone else on stage. That was almost the the case here. Charles Castronovo is a reliable Alfredo, phrasing nicely in “De' miei bollenti spiriti”, never pushing his tenor too hard. The slow tempo adopted for “Un dì felice” tested him, but he acts the part well and his “Parigi, o caro” duet with Jaho was most touching. After an excellent Yeletsky in Salzburg’s Pique Dame last summer, Igor Golovatenko disappointed as Germont, prone to singing too loud, nearly roaring himself hoarse at one point and with clipped phrasing in “Di Provenza”. Minor roles were well cast, with Aigul Akhmetshina a feisty Flora and Catherine Carby a wonderful Annina.

Charles Castronovo (Alfredo) and Igor Golovatenko (Germont) © ROH | Catherine Ashmore
Charles Castronovo (Alfredo) and Igor Golovatenko (Germont)
© ROH | Catherine Ashmore

Making his house debut, Antonello Manacorda, shaping phrases with his left hand as if squeezing fruit, drew supportive, sensitive playing from the ROH Orchestra, although some tempi were on the slow side. The chorus relished their gypsy and matador guises a good deal more than their recent showing in Carmen.

Eyre’s production, faithfully revived by Andrew Sinclair, is traditional and no-nonsense. It tells the story well and allows space for individual sopranos to put their stamp on the central role, which is just as it should be. All these years on, Bob Crowley’s designs still impress, particularly the crooked perspectives of the gambling scene at Flora’s party. It’s the perfect staging for both opera newbie and Traviata junkie alike.


****1