Chinese soprano He Hui made her Metropolitan Opera “Live in HD” debut on 9 November in the lead role in Giacomo Puccini’s Madama Butterfly. This might not be quite the first time a Chinese singer has the lead in one of these international broadcasts—but then again, it might be—but it is still an extremely rare occurrence and worthy of note.
As part of the new Italia Mia festival and in a joint production of the Italian Cultural Institute and Opera Hong Kong, soprano Wang Bing Bing headlined an instrumental vocal and lyrical recital entitled “Passion of Italy”.
Opera plots can often strain credulity; Giacomo Puccini’s Madama Butterfly, on the other hand, cuts close to the bone. The story—of an American naval officer who woos, marries and deserts a young Japanese girl—matters: it is a tightly-constructed narrative and attempts to reframe it, reposition it in another time or place, can be fraught.
Madama Butterfly, like Giacomo Puccini’s previous blockbuster Tosca, was born out a visit to the theatre. In 1900, the composer was in London for six weeks to oversee the opening of Tosca at Covent Garden on 12 July, when he was persuaded to go to the Duke of York’s Theatre for a double-bill of one act plays, including one called “Madam Butterfly”.
To paraphrase Star Trek—perhaps appropriately, given Director Nic Muni’s pre-performance talk emphasizing the modern vibe he wished to give the work—this is Tosca, but not as we know it. More Than Musical’s most recent production is more than ridotto—reduced and abridged for a smaller cast and orchestra—but altered and rearranged.
Giacomo Puccini’s final opera is the tale of a Chinese ice princess melted by an implacable love. Turandot, channeling the spirit of a violated ancestress, sets suitors three unanswerable riddles to be answered on pain of death.
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.