British Critics Hail Albania’s Jaho in Puccini Opera

Albanian opera singer Ermonela Jaho has cemented her star status with rave reviews from London for her role in Madam Butterfly. 
Jaho playing Cio-Cio-San. Photo: Youtube screenshot

Albanian soprano Ermonela Jaho, playing Cio-Cio-San in Puccini’s famous opera Madam Butterfly, has drawn rave reviews in the UK in the recent days, with prominent newspapers hailing her Covent Garden performance as outstanding.

The Guardian newspaper wrote she had “triumphed” in the role.

“Jaho is ideal for the part, hollow-eyed and fragile with stylised white makeup accentuating her vulnerability. She sings with so much imagination and vocal colour,” the paper’s opera critics Fiona Maddocks wrote.

The review in the UK Independent said she was “the best Cio-Cio-San London has seen in years”.

“The Albanian soprano Ermonela Jaho’s portrayal of the title role is fresh and affecting, and she shows the depth of her passion and vulnerability,” echoed the Times.

The legendary opera by Italian composer Giacomo Puccini was put on stage at London’s Royal Opera House on March 20, and tickets for the almost month-long run have already sold out.

Jaho has not only been acclaimed in the UK either. International media from Australia to the US have resorted to superlatives when describing the singer’s leading role.

Many are intrigued that the 43-year-old singer is Albanian, while Jaho has shown that the small, formerly communist country, can give the opera world a star of global proportions.

Jaho was born and raised in the Communist era in Tirana in 1974 and her passion for music began as a child, as she listened to and tried to sing Albanian folk songs.

In an interview for Opinion show on TV Klan in 2012, she said she was only able to listen to La Traviata for the first time when was 14 years old in Tirana, while preparing to start music studies at the Jordan Misja lyceum.

“When, in the last act of the piece, Violetta [one of main Traviata characters] died, I cried while feeling extremely moved. I told my brother: I will not die without once singing Traviata,’” she recalled.

Since those far-off days she has played the Violetta character from Traviata on international stages more than 240 times, from Vienna and London to Sydney.

She started at the Tirana Lyceum and later the Academy of Arts in 1993, while the country was struggling to escape the old political system and turn into a democracy. She got a scholarship and finished her musical studies at the Santa Cecilia Academy in Rome.

The years spent in Italy she recalls as beautiful but also difficult and sometimes depressing, partly because the very idea of an Albanian succeeding in Italian opera was not something that came easily to her professors, or to others.

“They looked as if you’d come from another planet if you asked something that didn’t ‘belong to you’. All these difficulties pushed me into a tunnel of depression where I learned to survive alone, like many Albanians,” she said in the 2012 interview.

Feeling the victim of prejudice and sometimes even struggling to get enough food, she somehow kept her dream alive.

Her hard work and talent began to be rewarded when she started a professional career in Italy and when, aged 23, she won the Giacomo Puccini opera prize in Italy.

Soon afterwards, she won other competitions in Italy and Europe while her name became more familiar in the European opera world.

She moved to the United States in 2003 where she was able to perform on stage in New York and Philadelphia.

Meanwhile, she started to gain wider international recognition and perform all over the world under a tight schedule. She won the International Opera Prize last May.

However, her ties with Albania remain strong and she does not lose an opportunity to perform in Tirana while on visits to her family.

In other signs that she has not forgotten her homeland, she says she plans to create a school for classical music in Tirana one day. She also does not exclude the idea of making a permanent return from the country she left 24 years ago.