That He Hui chose to open her concert, part of a 20th career anniversary tour of China, with Adriana Lecouvreur’s first act aria from Francesco Cilèa’s eponymous opera says everything one needs to know about this Chinese soprano’s attitude towards her art. When praised by her colleagues, the 18th-century star of the Paris theatre demurs:
Io son l’umile ancella del genio creator …
I’m but the humble servant of creative genius …
He Hui marked her professional debut 20 years ago in a 1998 performance as Aida in a Maggio Musicale Fiorentino production to open the new Shanghai Grand Theatre. Although known as being in possession of a voce verdiana, in this concert He Hui eschewed Giuseppe Verdi—except for a well-rounded “Pace pace, mio dio” from La Forza del Destino, an aria she sang in her first international concert in Los Angeles in 2000—for a mostly verismo program: Puccini, Giordano, Cilèa and Catalani. She was in exceptionally fine voice, rich and expressive, emotionally as well as musically.
The first encore was the well-known “Non ti scordar di me”. There’s really not much chance of that.
Moving performances from He Hui are by now expected, but what was a surprise was the choice of accompaniment: pianist Roberto Corliano and Arena de Verona String Quartet. I have never heard a singer accompanied in this way: the strings added color and depth while retaining the intimacy of a piano recital. The result, at least with musicians of this caliber, was revelatory.
Even more revelatory, however, were the transcriptions, apparently original, played by the resulting piano and strings quintet. A paraphrase of Umberto Giordano’s Andrea Chénier and fantasy from George Bizet’s Pêcheurs de Perles magically managed to condense the operas musically into pieces a few minutes long; it can be no coincidence that instruments, played by artists so used to accompanying singers, appeared to sing themselves.
He Hui ended each section with a Chinese concert piece, one from Quifeng Zhang, and the other by Zaiyu Lu. Neither felt out of place; both were operatic in intensity.
He Hui was in command of her voice, the stage and a carefully-chosen programme, each of whose elements seemed to carry a message. The second encore was “Vissi d’arte” from Tosca; whose “I lived for art” provided an appropriate bookend to the opening aria. She is debuting Adriana Lecouvreur in Verona in 2019, a year which will also see debuts of the lead roles in Puccini’s Turandot and Boito’s Mefistofele.
But the first encore was the well-known “Non ti scordar di me”—”Do not forget me”. There’s really not much chance of that.
He Hui’s tour continues in October in Xiamen, Beijing and other cities.
Peter Gordon is editor of the Asian Review of Books.