La traviata - Royal Opera House, 17 January 2008
Denied the advertised Anna Netrebko due to a sudden-onset 'bronchial condition' (which will no doubt clear as soon as teh shops open), we learned only hours before tonight's Covent Garden performance of La traviata that our replacement Violetta was to be Ermonela Jaho, aka -- 'who?'
Actually, that's not fair -- the name struck a faint bell, and sure enough, a little scrabbling around, and I found her name on a favourite Juan Diego Flórez recording. Well, if she's good enough for JDF.....
The suspiciously perceptive Royal Opera House, who probably by now realise that every Netrebko contract comes with a sicknote, had cannily flown in Jaho the night before. And that's not all - as it became evident that she had every move of this fiddly production pegged, it was obvious Jaho either a) is the world's fastest learner, b) has been cramming DVDs for weeks dreaming of getting 'the call' or c) has somehow and who knows how managed to fit in more than one day's rehearsal.
At first it didn't seem so. In contrast to her classically elegant ballerina looks, her singing was graceless and squally, with a vibrato you could drive a truck through. But she drove pluckily on, and as her solo scene drew the first act to a close, the tone sweetened and smoothed out. Just nerves, then, and who could blame her? Not the easiest way to make a Covent Garden debut.
If her È strano was cautious, her Sempre libera rather buttoned-up, the massive ovation she got at the end of Act I must have boosted her confidence, because after the interval we saw what Jaho could really do.
Jaho may lack Netrebko's brassballed charisma, but she does score in a few areas where Netrebko's not even in the game, namely sincerity, humility and warmth. Her clean, silvery tone is not broadly coloured, nor does she play with dynamic extremes. Nuance rather than gesture is her weapon. As she slid downward through her Act II showdown with Germont père, each tiny straw of hope snatched away from her grasp one by one, the voice glowed and dimmed. Her desperation is corseted and dignified, and all the more credible for it. It was a bravely open performance. I don't doubt Netrebko would have given a very different reading, but Jaho's was subtle, coherent and most of all, touching. I was far from the only one in tears. And more than once.
And I think I should point out that every one of Jaho's notes was clear, even toned and accurately placed - of course that should be a given, but I can't recall the last soprano I heard here who managed it.
Violetta's illness was portrayed in too non-specific a way - not a cough to be heard (plenty to compensate in the audience of course...) and the protracted death scene, delivered as a Dawn of the Dead zombie walk around the set, was misplaced, but otherwise there were no holes to be picked in Jaho's performance.
And she had fine support from Jonas Kaufmann as Alfredo and Dmitri Hvorostovsky as Germont. Vocally and dramatically Kaufmann was faultless, and so hawt you could fry eggs on him. And not one second of 'underpowered' either, as some of the first night critics claimed - every note was stadium-sized. Though he remains about as Italian as Hamburger con cipolle, this is no flaw in a performance this dynamic and committed.
Hvorostovsky sang wonderfully throughout, with a great attention to detail. He had the appropriate patrician assurance for most requirements, a natural authority that marked his presence, but couldn't unbend sufficiently to make key moments like his final reconciliation with Violetta work dramatically.
Although none of the smaller roles were hugely impressive, the ROH chorus once again did a fabulous job, despite in some places getting not a lot of help from conductor Maurizio Benini, who should be collared for reckless disregard of an orchestra. There were so many instances when musicians threatened to part company totally with singers. But he did pull out the light, sprightly performance that was needed.
Just before the performance started, a cheer went up. I looked around, and there, in one of the boxes, were a bride and bridegroom in full wedding gear, veil included. What a way to start a honeymoon. I do hope Netrebko didn't ruin their special day by not turning up, but they looked happy enough. There were plenty of people not best pleased before the performance (including some Germans who'd travelled just to see Netrebko) - but I didn't hear one complaint at the end. Could Jaho be the cure for Netrebko cancellitis?
***UPDATE*** - check out another perspective on the same performance, and a useful round up of the reviews, from Mad Musings of Me
above, Ermonela Jaho sings from La traviata - not tonight's production though.