When experiencing the drama of the opera, it’s rare that an audience gets to witness the drama of an individual performer.
However, that was the case with Elmonera Jaho at the Kanagawa Kenmin Hall in Yokohama on Sept. 12, the opening day of “La Traviata” by Britain’s Royal Opera House (ROH). The Albanian soprano had to stop performing suddenly after the first act. This left the ROH having to replace their lead actress for a third time.
Jaho spoke to The Japan Times on Sept. 9, prior to her Japan debut.
“I got a phone call from the ROH almost 10 days ago. They asked me if I would come to Japan for this tour,” Jaho said. “Of course, the ROH is one of the most important opera houses in the world. It’s a great opportunity to sing with them and especially (to be able to) sing in Japan for the first time.”
Jaho herself was a replacement. Lead singer Angela Gheorghiu pulled out of the show because her daughter was seriously ill. Before the curtain went up on performance day, Elaine Padmore, the ROH’s director of opera, appeared on stage.
“It is terribly disappointing for everyone concerned when previously announced casting plans have to be changed,” Padmore said.
After the apologies, Padmore announced that the ROH counted itself fortunate to be able to present Jaho in the role of Violetta Valery.
Coincidentally, Padmore explained that another emergency in 2008 resulted in Jaho’s debut with the ROH in London, also for a performance of “La Traviata.” It was so successful that the troupe invited her to sing the role in her own right in May.
“It’s a big challenge to decide at the last moment (whether to perform), but it’s also a big opportunity,” Jaho said about the sudden opportunity in Japan. “You have to be ready and have the courage to go for it. I respect Gheorghiu. She is my friend. I know that I’m not so famous in Japan; it is a big risk but I will try to give my best.”
Meanwhile, at the Kanagawa hall, Jaho took the stage. Her character, Violetta, is a courtesan who falls for Alfredo Germont, a nobleman. Even when she first portrayed the character in 2005, it was not a role unfamiliar to Jaho; “La Traviata” was the first opera she ever saw. The masterpiece, written by Italian composer Giuseppe Verdi (1813-1901), inspired her at the age of 13 to become an opera singer in the first place.
Jaho swung between melancholy and pleasure as she portrayed the complexities of Violetta’s personality, and she topped it off with a remarkably skilled vocal technique. She flowed effortlessly through the party scene until finally reaching the character’s famous aria “Sempre Libera” (“Always Free”) at the end of the first act. This is where the crowd may have noticed that she was unable to reach the highest tone in the coloratura passage. It seemed she was in some physical discomfort.
After the intermission, ROH director Padmore once again came out on stage, causing the audience to stir with a tinge of concern. She announced that Jaho could not continue due to allergies. Padmore then introduced another rising singer who was accompanying the tour as a cover.
“La Traviata” was eventually finished by U.S. soprano Ailyn Perez in the role of Violetta. She was supported by tenor James Valenti as Alfredo, and baritone Simon Keenlyside in the role of Alfredo’s father, Germont. Under the baton of maestro Antonio Pappano, the ROH Orchestra also stepped up its performance.
At the end of the show, no booing was heard. In fact, the audience reacted warmly with a long stretch of applause. The unusual experience demonstrated the true strength of the ROH, that despite sudden setbacks the company can still deliver a grand experience and stay true to that old show-business adage, “The show must go on.”
On Sept. 13, Jaho sent a message to The Japan Times while recovering at her hotel. She said that sometimes, unfortunately, nature presents obstacles. But she is determined to continue with the tour.
It just so happens that Jaho addressed the same topic in our interview last week. When speaking about replacing Gheorghiu, she mused, “Life is a challenge, especially for an artist. But if you don’t take risks, you will never move on to be in the first class.”
Hopefully, Jaho can keep inspired by her own advice.
UPDATE: Elmonera Jaho made a full recovery and performed the role of Violetta at the Sept. 16 performance of “La Traviata.” The audience was reportedly delighted with her performance. Expect to see her at the remaining performances.
“La Traviata” takes place at NHK Hall in Shibuya on Sept. 19 at 3 p.m., and Sept. 22 at 5 p.m. Tickets cost ¥26,000-¥54,000. For details, call the NBS Ticket Center at (03) 3791-8888 or visit www.nbs.or.jp/english/