“And so my Butterfly, my passionate little one, wants to leave me?” wrote Puccini in a letter to his leading lady shortly after the famously disastrous premiere of Madama Butterfly in 1904. “It seems to me that in going you take away the best, the most  poetic part of my work. Or to express myself better: I think that Butterfly without Rosina Storchio becomes a thing without a soul.”

Storchio (1872–1945) was clearly a force to be reckoned with, and now the Venetian-born soprano is the subject of Ermonela Jaho’s spinetingling new album, Anima Rara. It’s the latest in a series of revelatory recital discs on the pioneering Opera Rara label that aim to illuminate the lives and repertoire of significant singers in operatic history, and in the early 20th century, few were as influential as Storchio.

Although she’s remembered chiefly for her association with Puccini, the leading verismo composers of the day were clamouring for Storchio to ginger up their world premieres. From Leoncavallo’s La Bohème (1897) and Zazà (1900), to Girdano’s Siberia (1903) and Mascagni’s Lodoletta (1917), Storchio dominated the operatic stage, even finding time to fit in an affair with Toscanini along the way. Equipped with an expressive, lyric voice and acting ability to match, she leavened her contemporary work with classic roles like Violetta and Manon, all of which makes her a natural fit for Jaho, one of the most communicative and dramatically passionate singers of today.

Thoughtfully crafted, the recital is bookended by Madama Butterfly, opening with a beautifully sculpted “Un bel dì” and closing with an impassioned account of Butterfly’s farewell to her child. Jaho’s warm, silvery voice is imbued with a natural fragility, but she’s also blessed with a core of steel tempered by a great strength of purpose than never lets her down. Her diction is impeccable, aided by close yet sensitive miking, granting the listener unparalleled access to the singer’s emotional agenda.

Among Storchio’s “classic” roles, Violetta is Jaho’s own calling card and her excerpt here culminates in an exquisitely shaded, heart-breaking account of “Addio, del passato” – both verses for once! The orchestral sound, subtly shaped by conductor Andrea Battistoni is always supportive, never overwhelming. Manon’s poignant “Adieu, notre petite table”, a delicately touching “Ebben? Ne andrò lontana” and a rapt account of Helen’s “L’altra notte in fondo al mare” from Boito’s Mefistofele complete what you might call the standard rep.

The rarities are just as compelling, thanks to Jaho’s determination to invest heart and soul in anything she sings. The two lively arias from Leoncavallo’s La Bohème showcase her playful side while demonstrating why we shouldn’t underestimate a composer just because his libretto is less adroit than Puccini’s. With its pungent temple gongs, “Un dì (ero piccina)” from Mascagni’s Iris could be straight out of Butterfly. Jaho builds to a series of ringing top notes and a devastatingly powerful conclusion. Two arias from Massenet’s Sapho divulge another forgotten, richly melodic score with, in Jaho’s penetrating account, the lengthy “‘Demain je partirai” a genuine standout.

For sheer tunefulness, “Nel suo amore rianimata” from Giordano’s Siberia and “Son pochi fiori” from Mascagni’s L’Amico Fritz merit a place on anyone’s verismo album. The extended scene from Mascagni’ Lodoletta is a tougher nut to crack, but Jaho brings it off thanks to 12-minutes of consummate vocal acting.

“It’s easy to appreciate something well-established and proven before the public, but it requires artistic vision to ask an audience to take a new look at a work of art that has been lost in the mists of time,” says Jaho in her introduction. Immaculately programmed, exquisitely sung, Anima Rara is one of the finest recital discs in ages, an operatic treasure trove that parts the mists and allows these gems to sparkle anew. 

Anima Rara is released on September 25

Title: Anima Rara
Work: Arias for Rosina Storchio
Performers: Ermonela Jaho s, Orquestra de la Comunitat Valenciana/Andrea Battistoni
Label: Opera Rara ORR253

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