In 2011, she sang a wonderful Suor Angelica, astonishing audiences with her passionate portrayal. Now she’s back at the Royal Opera House again, singing Magda in Puccini’s La Rondine
Although Puccini’s La Rondine is very different from Verdi’s La Traviata, Magda and Violetta are both ladies with a past who sacrifice themselves for others. Violetta is one of Jaho’s signature roles, which she has created many times all over the world. How does she approach Magda ? “I did the role ten years ago” she says. “and I thought, but’s it’s operetta ! I usually do big dramatic parts. So why have they chosen me? But now I understand Magda. Puccini is writing a different kind of heroine. Magda does not die. There’s no big catharsis. Magda does not die physically. But she’s dying inside, slowly. Her body is alive, but her heart and soul are quietly dying. But it’s a choice that she made for herself. Everyone of us, we make choices in life. We’re all trying to do our best. But sometimes we don’t have the maturity and experience, and sometimes the choices might not be right in the end”.
“’Chi il bel sogno di Doretta PotË indovinar! ‘? How will the story end? When we are young we are influenced by society, conservative convention, by what other people think. So she thought she wanted money and security. Now she has everything material, jewels, dresses, money. But now she knows that love is priceless. No-one can buy the feeling of happiness that love gives you. Prunier is just singing a song, but for Magda, the song is like a trigger that trips off memories and emotions she can’t hide any more. In the beginning of the first act, she’s a little sad but she has to play the games people expect. But by the end of the act, when she is alone, she decides to do something about her dreams.”
“So she changes her clothes and goes to Bulliers, dressed as a young girl. And the past happens again in exactly the same way. She meets Ruggero. He doesn’t know who she is but loves her for what she is. They kiss, and she wants that wonderful moment to last forever. So she tells him she’s called Paulette, a simple name like Lisette, her maid. Lisette is very down to earth, unlike Prunier, who lives in fantasy. Puccini is really sharp, he writes something funny when something dramatic is going to happen. So the past happens all over again and she makes the same mistake, she cannot face the truth so she tries to stay mysterious. But you can understand, she doesn’t want the cream to end.”
“In the last act, Magda and Ruggero are in a chic resort. It’s Spring and in the sunshine, flowers are blooming, they are making love, they are so happy. But Ruggero is a country boy, so he takes things seriously and he wants to marry her. When Magda hears how his mother thinks she’s a pure girl, who will have babies, she knows that she cannot play the dream any more. The beautiful bubble must burst now. She has to face reality even though her heart will break”
“Magda knows that she can’t be the kind of woman Ruggero needs. So she tells the truth. In those moments, you can see Ruggero’s face change with disappointment and shock. He is losing his dream, too. But he is young, he might have a different future. So she sings tenderly, like a mother soothing a child. ‘Quando sarai guarito, te ne ricorderai. Ti ritorni alla casa tua serena, io reprendo il mio volo e la mia pena”. She loves him so much that she doesn’t want him to make the wrong choice like she did when she was young”.
“Every time I sing this role, even in rehearsal, it takes a lot out of me. I need to be totally honest with my emotions. When I sing those last lines, I feel my heart and vocal chords pulling. If we are human beings, it’s impossible to become detached. Puccini closes the opera with pianissimo, but for me that is not a beautiful sound. It is the sound of Magda’s heart screaming from deep inside her soul.”
Magda and Violetta are really quite different. Violetta knows that she is going to die, so when she gives up Alfredo, she will not survive anyway. She is coughing blood, she has tuberculosis. You can’t sing her lines in a pretty way because that’s no true to the drama. We singers have to have integrity, we can’t sing just to please the public. The music, the role, that comes first. When Violetta dies, she finds peace. But Magda has to live, maybe many more years, knowing that she gave up her moment of love. She is a truly noble soul. She is strong because she could make that choice. She will be empty, a long, slow sadness in her life, but she also knows that Ruggero will be happy. That is the proof of her love. She doesn’t have a physical death, she doesn’t have a catharsis. But her pain makes her stronger and more mature.”
“When I was a child, I was so shy. You can’t imagine. I kept everything hidden inside me. Maybe it was destiny that I learned how to sing. It was like psychotherapy. I found a way to channel my feelings. In society, we are always under pressure to follow rules, and we can’t be so open about our feelings. But with music, we can tell the truth !”
“Suor Angelica, for example, she is a kind of prisoner in the convent. She can’t tell anyone her secret. Suor Angelia’s catharsis is her vision. To be artists, we have to carry some deep feelings in ourselves. Puccini understood. He visited convents, he saw the nuns as women who had made choices, though some of course didn’t have a choice. The opera was written a hundred years ago, but the human side is universal.“
Another of Jaho’s favourite roles is Madama Butterfly. “Cio Cio San is only 15 years old, but she’s not completely a victim. She wants her dreams to become reality. She even goes to the Consulate and wants to become American. She kills herself when her dreams fall apart. It’s extreme, but we all know what teenagers can be like, and so did Puccini”
Singers put so much of themselves into their art. They have integrity. Ermonela Jaho emerged from our interview tired, but radiant. Facing feelings, finding strength – would that we all had the courage to sing !
Ermonela Jaho sings Magda in Puccini’s La Rondine at the Royal Opera House. For more details, visit her website.
product_title=Ermonela Jaho — Singing and Character
product_by=An interview by Anne Ozorio
product_id=Above: Ermonela Jaho