Nedda, the leading female character of Leoncavallo’s “Pagliacci,” must die rather than consummate true love. The soprano Ermonela Jaho, who was preparing to make her debut in the role at London’s Royal Opera House this month before she had to cancel last-minute for reasons of health, has discovered that the character is more complex than she first thought.
“She is strong enough to fight until death for her freedom,” Ms. Jaho said in a phone interview. “She never loses the light inside of her.”
The Albanian soprano, 48, has won over audiences on both sides of the Atlantic with the depth and authenticity of her performances, especially in the realism of “verismo” works by Verdi and Puccini. Her portrayal of the character Violetta in “La Traviata” is a signature role which brought her into the international spotlight after she jumped in on short notice at the Royal Opera House in 2008. (She will return to the Verdi work at the Metropolitan Opera in January). The London stage also brought her role debut as Suor Angelica in Puccini’s “Il Trittico,” which she will sing at Barcelona’s Gran Teatre del Liceu in December.
Ms. Jaho was chosen to appear in the documentary “Fuoco Sacro,” now playing on the French-German television station Arte. Next April, she will return to the Royal Opera to sing the role of Liù in Puccini’s “Turandot,” which she recorded for the Warner Classics label under the baton of Antonio Pappano.
At the Royal Opera from Tuesday through July 20, the soprano Aleksandra Kurzak has jumped in as Nedda in Damiano Michieletto’s double bill of “Pagliacci” and Mascagni’s “Cavalleria Rusticana,” first seen in 2015.
Mr. Pappano, the Royal Opera’s longtime music director, pointed to a winning combination of empathy and strength in Ms. Jaho’s performances. “She is sensitive to every curve of every phrase and every situation the character finds herself in — also in heartbreaking situations,” he said in a phone interview. “But she’s also got this steely resolve, which she has to have in ‘Suor Angelica’ and, in particular, ‘Madame Butterfly.’”
“She is capable,” he said, “with her voice and with her acting — which is so detailed and so nuanced — to make you cry. She’s very generous when she’s out there. She’s not saving for anything.”
In “Pagliacci,” the soprano role demands tremendous flexibility and range. The story focuses on a theater troupe in 19th-century Calabria. The work creates a metadramatic tightrope when Nedda’s husband, Canio, takes vengeance for her infidelity both in a comedy onstage and with a villager.
“This is absolutely essential verismo,” said the conductor. “Sometimes the part is almost spoken, and then it becomes thrusting and dramatic.”
Ms. Jaho sees a challenge in conveying her character’s complexity within the two-act drama. “You have to play all these cards, all these emotions, and be read from the public in little time,” she said.
The soprano began assimilating Italian culture at 17, when she was chosen by the soprano Katia Ricciarelli to study at her academy in Mantua, Italy. Ms. Jaho went on to enroll at the Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia in Rome, where she studied with Valerio Paperi. She was also coached on the side by the bass Paolo Montarsolo.
“I wanted to prove to everyone that even if I come from Albania, I can speak your language, I can sing your music,” said Ms. Jaho, who now lives in New York.
Having grown up in a country that was behind the Iron Curtain, the soprano struggled in Italy with both culture shock and the distance from her family. She also had to work odd jobs, babysitting and taking care of older people. “But always I had in mind that if the dream is big, maybe the sacrifices and difficulties will be big as well,” she said.
She inherited a gift for mindfulness from her father, who was a military officer and professor of philosophy: “Sometimes you feel hopeless, because life is not always beautiful. He told me that nothing is impossible. And you have to work hard.”
Ms. Jaho considers it destiny that she went on to star in “La Traviata” after falling in love with that opera in her hometown of Tirana, the Albanian capital, at 14. It was her first experience with live opera, and she swore to her older brother that she would sing the character before she died.
To date, she has sung the role of Violetta 301 times. She said that the role had become “richer with life experience” and that it remained “like a dream for my voice.”
“Somehow, it pushes me to stay in shape,” she said.
Last fall, she added the title character of Cilea’s “Adriana Lecouvreur” to her repertoire, with performances at the Vienna State Opera. She also sings French-language works such as Massenet’s “Thaïs.” But she does not aim to play roles for which she does not have a natural affinity.
“It’s not because I don’t like challenges,” she said. “But sometimes you need to know which kind of battles you want to win.”
Since 2012, she has given master classes to students both in her home country of Albania and in cities including London, Paris and Sydney, Australia. “The young generation today wants to take it so easy,” she observed. “They think it’s enough to put your face on social media — which we need as well — but only with a certain balance.”
She emphasized that the Covid era had underscored the vulnerability of the profession: “We discovered that we are nothing — the opera houses were closed. It really has to be love from your guts.”
Ms. Jaho expresses a childlike delight with Mr. Michieletto’s staging, which for her captures “all the details and flavors” of southern Italy. “You forget that you are the artist who’s singing the character,” she said. “You become the character because everything around you helps with that.”
The director also weaves together the two short operas by having characters from “Pagliacci” appear onstage during “Cavalleria Rusticana” and vice versa. “Everything makes sense,” she said. “Their hate, their love. You don’t understand the difference in the end, even though they are different composers.”
And much as Leoncavallo’s opera reveals the fluid boundaries between art and life, Ms. Jaho says she believes that a singer must be “real onstage” in order to serve the music. “If you don’t cry, love and smile as yourself,” she said, “you cannot give to the public.”