Metropolitan Opera 2022-23 Review: La Traviata

Ermonela Jaho Bares Her Soul in Mesmerizing Turn

By David Salazar

There are few performers as magnetic as Ermonela Jaho.

From the moment the Albanian soprano takes the stage, she is so entranced in the world she’s living in and the character she is bringing to life, that you can’t keep your eyes away. This was the case last season when she proved the standout amidst Zeffirelli’s gargantuan “Turandot” production and it was especially the case as she took to the Met stage for just the 12th time (!) in her career as Violetta in Verdi’s “La Traviata” (the fact that she debuted in 2008 and this is just her fourth production with the company, despite being a Long Island resident, is… something).

From the outset, as she awakened to the scene of her death during the prelude, you were pulled into a character trying to remember, trying to understand, hopelessly trying to connect with the frozen figures in front of her. When she re-emerges onstage moments later for the opening scene, she was radiance personified, moving about the space as if she owned it and gracefully in step with the dancers.

Her initial vocal lines “Flora, amici, la notte che resta,” imbued with a darker resonance showcased a more mature and even guarded Violetta from the outset, furthering our notion of her prominence in this social setting. In contrast with Ismael Jordi’s more happy-go-lucky vibe as Alfredo, it created a unique tension in which the two were mismatched and yet complimentary, especially as she goaded and taunted him during those opening exchanges. Their vocal approaches in this scene were also in contrast with the soprano digging into the darker edge of her sound, counterpointing his lighter color.

While there was some spottiness in her intonation throughout the Brindisi, there was greater precision in the ensuing love duet. The soprano delivered some aggressive coloratura runs on “Ah, se ciò è ver, fuggitemi,” which more than laughing at Alfredo, seemed to be a forceful rejection of his advances, all the while, moving away from his advances around the stage.

As the duet progressed, however, Jaho slowly gave into Jordi’s Alfredo, her voice becoming increasingly docile and delicate, the first such instance of what would become a major trademark of her interpretation. Their cadenza was potent not only in how the two coalesced beautifully, Jaho’s voice matching Jordi’s more delicate timbre, but in how the fullness of her sound emphasized the harmonic line and added depth to the phrase. While Jordi’s performance on its own had its ups and downs, one thing that was notable was that the two singers were quite comfortable vocally and physically with one another and this scene was the first indication of this dynamic.

The big scene of Act one is “È strano” and Jaho delivered one of the most memorable renditions in recent Met history. After a prolonged silence following the chorus’ exit, Jaho commenced those iconic words in truly hushed tones, drawing us into, for the first time, a truly intimate sphere that she would share with us for the next 10 minutes. There was restraint throughout the opening recitatives, the soprano holding back with soft colors until erupting on the Bb5 on “O gioia” and then the Ab5 on “follie.” But even then, those climaxes were brief, just a preview of what was to come.

“Ah, fors’è lui” was sung with a thread-like pianissimo sound, the soprano gradually shifting from one side of the stage to the other across the entire passage. But her sound remained soft throughout, amplifying the intimacy of the moment, but also creating a trance-like experience. Even when she crescendoed up to the key change into F major on “destandomi all’amor” she receded back to the ethereal delicacy of “A quell’amor ch’è palpito.” The score says forte as the dynamic marking, but Jaho’s was more of a mezzo piano in character with her voice only coming close to that Forte marking on the A5 on “Croce delizia;” and even then, it was tender in nature, in keeping with the overall musical texture of her interpretation. The cadenza was similarly elegant and fluid throughout the coloratura descension, each note embraced and caressed with similar warmth. She ended the aria with a sublime appoggiatura on a final trill and then a subsequently glorious diminuendo.

After this ethereal interpretation of the aria, she broke the spell with a violent “Follie!” Her voice suddenly returned to the harder and guarded edge of the earlier passage, gaining strength and brightness as she moved toward the high Cs, Db on “Gioir!” “Sempre libera” was dispatched with a darker tone with the soprano blasting her sound on the highest notes. With this more aggressive vocal approach and more active physicality, it almost felt like an externalization of the inner battle, Violetta fighting for her freedom with every note.

In the middle of the cabaletta, Alfredo starts his rendition of “Amor, amor è palpito.” Jaho turned to the glass of wine she was holding and glanced at it, almost as if wondering whether she had too many drinks. But as Alfredo’s singing continued, she grew more unsettled, her voice more agitated as she sang “Oh amore.” The tension was palpable and then suddenly… she flung the glass across the stage in a shocking and exhilarating moment. Her “Follie!” were even more accented this time around, and the runs leading up to the Db6 more contrasted (the second run, starting on Bb5 was a sliver of sound compared to the accented first one) with that high note coming across with the greatest intensity of all. The inner battle continued throughout the aria with Jaho delivering the syncopated high C6s with ferocity and eventually giving it all on the final A5, Violetta seemingly exhausted from the struggle (some of the coloratura passages in the coda were a bit muddied however).

And then we get to Act two, where Jaho’s performance was further elevated. The duet with Germont was full of palpable tension. After Germont’s aggressive entrance, Jaho stood her ground, responding with similar implacability on “Donna son io, signore, ed in mia casa.” She then strode away confidently, stopping when he uttered the gentle “Quai modi.” It set up a visible struggle for the soprano throughout the duet where her intensity came with increasing desperation. There was defiance as her voice soared on the A5 on “Più non esiste – or amo Alfredo, e Dio,” before agitation on “Ah no! – giammai! No, no!” Her voice attacked the vocal line with increasing accents, leading it up to a gut-wrenching high Bb5 and an even more pained A5 on “preferirò morir.” As Germont continued to push her into leaving Alfredo, you could see the pain on Jaho’s face, the inner struggle taking hold, her vocal externalizations almost like weeps. “È vero” was delivered as if the defeat had already set in and “Così alla misera,” delivered with Jaho’s sublime piano singing, was a lament. That sense of loss led gracefully into “Dite alla giovine.”

A lot of sopranos milk that fermata (many to rousing effect) by imbuing it with a crescendo or diminuendo into the Andante Cantabile. Jaho went for a more subtle approach, giving the fermata the most delicate of mezza di voce (crescendo and then a diminuendo) before singing the passage with the most heart-breaking of pianissimos. Like “Ah, fors’è lui,” the softness of the sound brought us into the deepest and most profound intimacy with Violetta. Considering the Met’s cavernous size, it’s refreshing to hear an artist unafraid of singing so soft that you might not hear her. But the beauty of it is precisely that it demands the audience to be an active participant, to truly listen. Most singers at the Met sing to the audience with the aim of having the beauty of their sounds wash over and overwhelm the audience with emotion. It’s not that Jaho doesn’t do this, but her connection to the moment and character is so powerful that with these piannisimi she invites the audience into Violetta’s world to be in the moment with the character. In these instances, the experience is immersive and, as with the opening aria, trance-like; even baritone Amartuvshin Enkhbat (more later), seemingly couldn’t help but taper down his powerful baritone to join her with similarly gentle singing.

(As a side-note, given Jaho’s own incredible immersion in the character – she’s not playing Violetta, she is Violetta – this benefits Michael Mayer’s other-wise painful production which seems to recede into being a mere backdrop for her world; Jaho maintained many of the previous stage directions but found the truthfulness in them, giving them spontaneity and keeping the viewer glued to her every move and action; conversely, in the few moments when Jaho wasn’t onstage, especially during moments during the parties, where her absence serves as a reminder of the shortcomings of Mayer’s vision).

As with the opening arias, Jaho delivered similarly potent contrasts between the delicacy of “Dite alla giovine,” her “Morrò” arguably her most violent outburst of the night as she threw something aside and rushed away from Germont. But after this musical exchange in which Jaho’s voice built into increasingly intense rousing high notes, she delivered one of the most heart-breaking moments of the night. As Germont walked away, Jaho’s Violetta, seated at her desk, turned once more to him and with the softest sound she could usher, delivered a weeping “Conosca il sacrifizio,” the phrase expansive, leading into a mournful G5.

From there, she sat at the desk, her body language delivering all the pain she was feeling, even while turned away. She wept, but again, it was just audible enough, her Violetta in her own world.

The ensuing lead up to “Amami Alfred” is one of the most gut-wrenching passages in all of opera and Jaho’s voice grew increasingly agitated throughout, without ever selling out to the intensity of the emotion. Instead, her voice fed each line until she pushed her voice to its brink on the ff climax. Given all the intensity that Jaho had mustered throughout the ensuing duet, it would not have been surprising to find that she had peaked in intensity for this big climax. And yet, somehow, there was something so raw, visceral, and human about that “Amami Alfredo” that instead of exceeding everything that had come before it, built on it, creating a fitting coda to this most breathtaking of dramatic scenes in opera.

And yet, Jaho still had so much to give in the ensuing scene where her musical and dramatic intelligence was on full display. In the opening act of the opera, her Violetta moved about proudly; here, her movements were more calculated, the soprano remaining in more fixed spots on stage. Her singing was similarly gentle, almost as if Violetta, not wanting to make a scene, was holding everything to herself. This was most noticeable during “Ah perchè venni incauta.” As she confronted Alfredo moments later, she ran from him, until he cornered her by the bed. As she defiantly announced that she loved the Baron, Jaho opted for a parlato approach to the text, adding to the shock and tension of the moment.

After Alfredo throws the money at her, a lot of sopranos are rather demonstrative of how upset and hurt, emphasizing the tears we can’t hear. But Jaho didn’t do any of that. Instead, she was frozen in shock, her head downcast as she looked down and away. This stillness was electrifying because of how alive it was and it was impossible to look away, even if there was other actions happening around her. And then, ever so slowly, she seemed to regain her consciousness and took in the room around her.

As the lights shifted in time for Violetta’s “Alfredo, Alfredo, di questo core,” Jaho started to shift out of the bed. And just like the mood change from the lights, Jaho’s angelic pianissimo brought us into another musical world, one of peace, understanding, forgiveness, and love (this was one of many instances where Jaho’s choices both physically and musically improved the production). And throughout this glorious musical moment, Jaho slowly made her way over to her beloved and wrapped him in a hug, one that would remain for the rest of this magnificent musical passage. She held firm to her more gentle vocal approach throughout, and even with the massive vocal forces around her, she was always audible and clear above the ensemble.

Enter Act three. Everything about this scene was unbelievably visceral as Jaho expressed the physical suffering of the heroine vividly and intensely (though it was noticeable that Jaho was struggling with her wig throughout Act three, constantly brushing her hair aside to somewhat distracting effect). While she committed to the portrayal of the sickness throughout with intense coughing fits, not shying away from that level of realism to the point that it made you wonder if it might have vocal detriment, here she took things to another level. Her movements became shorter, more difficult. Her hands visibly shook during parts of “Addio del passato.” And throughout, she delivered more audible and intense inhales to express Violetta’s own physical limitations. For some, especially vocal purists, it might be too much, but it was consistent with the rawness and truthfulness of the performance throughout the night.

To that point, the letter reading, written and delivered parlato, was but a sliver of sound, but always clear and audible. As she moved through the letter, there was increased agitation, leading to the perfect eruption on “È tardi,” her sound impassioned and pained.

“Addio del passato” was sung with even softer pianissimo than “Dite alla giovine” and “Alfredo, Alfredo,” not only amplifying the effect of such previous passages, but also emphasizing the character development of Violetta’s decline. She never rose above a mezzo piano in this passage, the high notes (A5) floated endlessly. But the repeat of the aria, which started off with an even gentler pianissimo, slowly but surely became more agitated in its approach, with Jaho delivering a forceful accent on “La tomba,” almost as if the mere mention of the word struck fear in Violetta’s soul. From that point on, each passage grew in intensity, as if Violetta, coming to terms with her coming death, was willing to fight one last time to survive. Each high note was more intense than the previous one and her voice audibly wept, the phrases broken up by intense inhales. The final A5, starting as a thread-like piano was held with all the force Jaho could muster, even crescendoing at its peak as she released it and seemingly, all hope for more life. The audience erupted into the most prolonged ovation of the night.

She was perfectly in synch with Jordi throughout “Parigi, o cara” before she went broke down upon realizing that his return would not save her. Jaho was most forceful during “Ma se tornando non m’hai salvato,” her voice growing increasingly dark as she delved deeper into the lower recesses of her voice. By the end, “salvarmi è dato” was parlato more than sung to wrenching effect. And from there came a guttural “Ah! Gran Dio!” leading to some more fine chemistry and vocalization with Jordi.

The final “Se una pudica vergine” was sung with the utmost tenderness, the pianissimo sound not quite as soft as previous renditions and even more plaintive in its tone. The high notes remained disembodied in their beauty, which contrasted wonderfully with Enkhbat and Jordi’s more full-bodied vocalization in contrasting passages of this final trio. During the final “È strano!” Jaho slowly regained her strength, and with increased desperation stood up, searching for a way out, exploding into one final burst of sound on “Oh gioia,” before collapsing into Jordi’s arms.

Jaho’s more dramatic voice might not seemingly be the obvious choice for the role, her wide vibrato might not be to everyone’s taste, and even some of her physical gesturing (she raises her right arm before every high note, seemingly as support) but her commitment to the stage and creating a living and breathing character is unquestionable. Whereas most opera artists sing gloriously with all their heart, Jaho is one of the few whose art comes from the depths of her soul.

Photos by Jonathan Tichler / Met Opera

Rounding into Form

Making his Met Opera debut as Alfredo was tenor Ismael Jordi, who has enjoyed an extensive career in Europe. He possesses a bright, elegant, and flexible tenor that has dominated the bel canto and zarzuela repertoire. However, it was clear from the outset that the role of Alfredo was not an ideal fit with Jordi delivering an inconsistent turn. Throughout the first half of the opera, with perhaps the exception of the Brindisi, he was overpowered, particularly in the upper range where it felt like every higher note was an effort, though some were better than others. While he managed the interpolated high C at the climax of the cabaletta “O mio rimorso” or high notes that he sung with Jaho quite well, more exposed ones, such as the A5 on “croce delizia,” sounded uncomfortable for the tenor. Moreover, his voice struggled to mix registers; he sounded thin and airless at the outset of “Un di felice” before audibly rounding out when he had to sing with Jaho or when approaching the higher notes. The latter approach added fullness to his sound, but when he tried to mix the two approaches across a vocal line, it was apparent he was trying to negotiate the passage to suit him rather than having his voice seamlessly flow through it. Meanwhile, the aria “De miei bollenti spiriti,” resulted in some intonation inconsistency from that very same vocal strategy.

But from the second scene of Act two onward the tenor was in far stronger form, his voice finding strength throughout “Ogni suo aver tal femmina” before he delivered one of the most memorable interpretations of “Ah, sì – che feci! Ne sento orrore.” This latter passage was delivered at a slower tempo, but whereas most tenors emphasize the rhythmic aspects of the line, Jordi’s rendition had a more fluid legato that turned the passage into a full-blown lament.

Things continued on the up during “Parigi o cara” where the tenor’s more delicate voice suited Verdi’s “dolcissimo a mezza voce” indication. It had a truly caressing quality throughout that resulted in some gorgeous singing; his ascension to the Ab5 on “il futuro” featured a breathtaking diminuendo on the high note to the gentlest of sounds.

Given that this was his first performance and what was heard during that second half, it is likely that Jordi is going to find his groove over the course of the final four performances of the run.

Photos by Jonathan Tichler / Met Opera

A Vocal Warrior

For many, Mongolian baritone Amartuvshin Enkhbat might have been the true standout of the night. He certainly delivered a display of vocal mastery that exemplified intelligent character development. His opening lines “Madamigella Valéry” was delivered with authoritarian clarity and aggressiveness and he maintained much of this hardened tone throughout the exchange with Jaho, his body rigid and often unyielding in its position. His voice took on a more gentle quality on “Quai modi” but even then the firmness remained.

Enkhbat delivered “Pura siccome un angelo” with a fluid and elegant legato, his sound as potent as ever; yet there was some restraint in the mix of vocal colors, the baritone’s “piano” lines here still rather forceful in nature. It gave the impression of a man who, despite bearing his soul, was still implacable and committed to his perspective.

After laying out his case, Violetta concedes that she can give up Alfredo for a bit. But Germont relents that the breakup must be permanent across three lines: “Non è ciò che chiedo; “Pur non basta; “È d’uopo” (“That is not what I ask;” “But not enough;” “You must!”). Each one was delivered with increasing and domineering agitation, suddenly shifting us back into the patriarchal dynamic with which the scene opens. The tension that Enkhbat managed with these increasingly forceful deliveries propelled Jaho’s painful responses and, underscored by the syncopations in the violin, made this transitional passage incredibly vivid and poignant and Jaho’s explosive “Non sapete quale affetto” all the more powerful.

From here on out the baritone’s timbre became increasingly docile, without losing any of its strength; you could feel the humanity and empathy coming through without losing the commitment to his cause. “Un dì, quando le veneri,” was suave in its delivery while retaining that darker quality as Germont does his utmost to convince Violetta of Alfredo’s future fickleness when the delights of love have staled. But this transitioned into more of a plea as he moved through “Siate di mia famiglia l’angel consolatore,” climaxing on a brighter high D on “Genitor.” Again, it never felt like there was any degree of desperation setting into the singing, but it was starting to soften bit by bit.

Verdi writes accents over the first two “Piangi, piangi” and Enkhbat delivered on them, reinstating some of that aggressiveness in the line and character, and even if his voice slimmed down a bit in ensuing passages, there was a notably powerful crescendo up to the fortissimo on “coraggio e il nobile tuo cor vincerà;” it contrasted wonderfully, both musically and dramatically, with Jaho’s interpretation of this passage. The return of the accented “Piangi” (this time with three accents) was even more forceful, and even tense, almost commanding in its nature. At the close of the duet, as he proposes solutions for Violetta to break up with Alfredo, his declamations was assertive and pointed.

On the whole, Enkhbat’s interpretation of the section, shifting from gentle at times to pointed and directed allowed us to see several facets of Germont’s character and even his internal conflict at being a father to Violetta while also maintaining his distance in order to protect his true daughter.

It was also fascinating to hear his take on the two arias that follow. For years, the latter of these, “no, non udrai rimproveri” was cut because it played up the same dramatic beat of a father trying to reconcile with his son of the previous and more famed aria “Di Provenza il mar, il suol.” Both are gentle in their nature, even if the musical character does contrast with the latter being more of a cabaletta. However, Enkhbat played up the contrasts more formidably.

Despite the nostalgic nature of “Di Provenza,” he maintained a rather sustained and potent vocal line throughout. The vocal line is littered with grace notes on the first beats of measures and Enkhbat gave them each firm accents and his crescendo to the “con forza” on “Dio mi giudo” were powerful in their sound and delivery. He contrasted this forceful character with a suddenly hushed and pleading delivery of the ppp. The repetition of the aria’s main melody is marked dolcissimo, and while the baritone managed some truly delicate singing “a il suo tetto si coprì,” the crescendo right up to the climax was even more intense and forceful. At the cadenza, he added a violent accent on each of the two high Gs on “Ma, ma sea al fin” that shook the audience with its fullness of sound and barnstorming power; you could feel the shock of those two notes in the space, almost as if it was something that hadn’t been heard in ages.

The ensuing cabaletta, which comes off as more conciliatory followed by a display of parental aggression, was delivered with a lightness that we hadn’t heard from Enkhbat throughout the rest of the night. You could feel shame in his voice as he tried to apologize to his son, his sound never really rising to the intense heights of the previous aria and often descending into more hushed tones.

Perhaps the most impressive passage from the baritone was his final big one – “Di sprezzo degno sé stesso rende,” where his maximal voice forces were on full display as he delivered a tremendous scolding of Alfredo for his actions. Even during “Dov’è mio figlio? Più non lo vedo,” often delivered as a bit of a lament, Enkhbat remained focused and pointed in his singing. More than a father, you heard a warrior, a man protecting his family, giving his son a good lesson in order to do so. And yet, the hardened, aggressive man from the beginning of Act two had completely vanished, replaced by one that even with his show of strength, had  utmost nobility and humanity.

This was a truly mature performance both vocally and dramatically. And given the quality of his voice and musical temperament, I couldn’t help but feel he should be the go-to baritone around the world for Verdi’s warrior roles like Conte di Luna in “Il Trovatore, “Nabucco,” and especially Don Carlo in “La Forza del Destino (he delivered a well-loved turn in Parma late last year and here’s hoping that the Met’s scheduled “Forza” features him).

The remaining cast members, including Christopher Job as Marquis D’Obigny, Paul Corona as Dr. Grenvil, Scott Scully as Gastone, and Deborah Nansteel as Annina did solid jobs onstage. Particularly notable was John Hancock as Baron Douphol, his tower presence and voice giving him a certain level of poise and menace despite the questionable costumes.

One night after leading “Fedora,” conductor Marco Armiliato was back at it with “La Traviata,” an opera he has led over 40 times with the company. He was in truly fine form delivering a solid performance that never wavered in its consistency.

From the get-go, the maestro and the orchestra were one, with the violins in the prelude particularly gleaming in their sound quality; the harmonizing lines were particularly prevalent giving that fragile line a special tension. He never overwhelmed the singers and even at their most fortissimo (“Amami Alfredo” stands out), the orchestra was never bombastic or overzealous. In fact, Armiliato’s approach favored an elegant restraint with the singers always at the forefront and allowed to shine; again, returning to that climactic “Amami, Alfredo,” the orchestra’s forte seemed to lift up instead of overpowering Jaho.

While most conductors these days seem to be in a competition as to who manages the fastest Allegro Agitato tempo that accompanies the card game (often to chaotic results), Armiliato’s tempo was fast enough to evoke the energy of the scene without losing any of the clarity of line or momentum; it also facilitated Violetta’s “Ah perchè venni incauti!” without having to revert to a sudden tempo slowdown as is often the case (there’s no such indication for a tempo shift anywhere in the score). And whereas a lot of conductors also try to be overemphatic with Verdi’s score (either by playing up the brass to create an unfortunate banda-like texture or by overexaggerating accents and codas), Armiliato’s grace with the score kept the orchestra in focus without hijacking the performance.

There are four more performances of this cast of “La Traviata” and I would highly recommend that everyone catch Jaho in what will likely be one of her finest Met Opera turns ever.


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