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ERMONELA Jaho’s Violetta is quite simply a Violetta to die for.Small matter that a large proportion of the audience who packed into the Opera House to witness her Australian debut in this role know Elijah Moshinsky’s well-worn production inside and out, Albanian-born soprano Jaho brought to the role such conviction and such technique in her portrayal of the doomed Parisian courtesan that she had grown men blubbering, and that was only by Act II.
Combined with the brilliance of Argentine-Australian baritone José Carbó as Germont, Jaho injects new life into an opera so familiar with audiences that it has almost become a cliché. Both are superbly supported by Korean tenor Ho-Yoon Chung in the relatively thankless role of the young lover, Alfredo.
There is nothing clichéd in Jaho’s performance. Whether in the popular “Brindisi” of Act I or in the equally celebrated aria, “Sempre Libera,” her sometimes attenuated voice shows hints of her impending death from TB, seemingly a case study of the “consumptive personality”, with constant suggestions of hypersensitivity and erratic gestures.
Act II scene i, set in autumn and complete with falling leaves, is often tightened and abbreviated, but here it is performed in its entirety, allowing us to experience the subtle conflict between Alfredo’s father Germont and Violetta in “Pura siccome un angelo” (Pure like an angel) and “Dite alla giovine”, (Say to your daughter). This Violetta is neither a radical feminist nor a helpless victim, but she is noble in her heroism, highlighted by Carbó’s empathetic portrayal, for it is through Germont’s short-sighted request for her to give up Alfredo that her true nature is revealed.
Later in this scene we observe Alfredo’s readiness to believe that she has deserted him. The whole autumn scene is full of feeling but never overplayed until her impassioned aria, “Amami Alfredo”(Love me Alfredo).Act II scene ii, the showy gambling scene at Flora’s house in Paris, seems at first to be a letdown after the previous scene. Here Michael Yeargan’s rich set is crammed with gypsies, matadors and members of the demi-monde and the tone is chaotic. But all that proves to be a setup for the moment where Alfredo disgraces himself by throwing cash at Violetta as a customer might. This is the only scene in which she seems like a victim, but again in the hands of Jaho and Carbó, it ends on a shocking and convincing note.
The last act, winter, is set in in Violetta’s Parisian apartment, now stripped bare. The supporting parts of the servant Annina (Natalie Aroyan) and Dr Grenvil (Gennadi Dubinsky) are performed with delicacy and feeling, allowing Jaho centre stage as she waxes and wanes, sometimes expressing her passion for life and more often failing. You can believe she is dying. Her voice is true yet apparently weak, brilliantly matched by conductor Renato Palumbo, who ensures that throughout the performance the orchestra is never dominant.
The arrival of Germont and Alfredo on stage for concluding moments of the opera and the duet “Parigi, o cara” (Away from Paris) completes the sense of futility of love, “mysterious and sublime” as it may have been.
Ermonela Jaho remains in Australia to play Violetta until February 18, when she will be replaced by Canberra-raised soprano Lorina Gore from February 23, then Emma Matthews from March 6. Both are distinguished performers in this role.