The most important thing to say about next week's two Taipei performances of Giuseppe Verdi's opera La Traviata is that you are unlikely to hear as fine a soprano in this role, or any other, for a considerable time to come, certainly in Taiwan.
The young Hungarian singer Eszter Sumegi will, without any doubt whatsoever, be head and shoulders above all the other cast members. Moreover, she's a singer who is rapidly ascending the international operatic ladder. A recent Tosca was greeted with unanimous acclaim, and she will repeat the role in November at the Vienna State Opera opposite the great Renato Bruson as Scarpia. But, just to show her variety, in October she will sing the First Walkyrie in Die Walkure in Paris, with Placido Domingo as Siegmund, in a Ring production directed by Robert Wilson.
This is her first visit to Asia, and for her appearance in Taipei we have to thank fellow-Hungarian Andras Ligeti, recently appointed as director of the Taipei Symphony Orchestra (TSO), the organization responsible for this event. She is undoubtedly the main reason for attending the performances -- two only -- at the Metropolitan Hall next weekend.
At a rehearsal at the TSO's Bade Road premises on Tuesday night Sumegi lay on her back on the floor with her arms and legs in the air. "You want me to sing like this?" she said. "No problem! I have the voice and I can sing in any position you choose." Director Hung Hung looked on amused, before explaining that wasn't quite what he had in mind.
She remained a bundle of energy throughout the evening, singing full-throatedly throughout, holding nothing back, and at the same time laughing, gesturing, dancing to the music and exchanging remarks with the conductor in Hungarian. She is certain to be an astonishing Violetta, and the thought that you only have to travel a few streets' distance to hear and see her boggles the mind. When I spoke to her she complained about the hot and humid weather.
The local food, too, came in for some sharp words. "We went to this restaurant, and do you know what there was to eat? It was dog. I couldn't believe it. Well, maybe they were joking, but I have stuck with McDonald's ever since." I pointed out there were at least two excellent Italian restaurants very close by. "Ah yes," she said, "I love Italian food."
Back in 1992 Sumegi won the Pavarotti Competition in Philadelphia, and the prize, she said, was a performance alongside the famous Italian tenor. It was of Gaetano Donizetti's little-known opera La Favorita, she added, grimacing. Anyway, she said, she won it, and that was the main thing.
If you've never attended an opera performance before, La Traviata would be an excellent one to start with. Verdi thought it was his best, or at least it is the one that has received the most deserved acclaim since its premiere in 1853.
Violetta, a courtesan (or European-style geisha), is in love with Alfredo, off-spring of a famous family. Alfredo's father, Germont intervenes and persuades her to give his son up, in the interests of respectability and an advantageous marriage. She very reluctantly agrees, but meets Alfredo again at a party. Before long he is back by her side, but it's too late as she's dying of tuberculosis.
Verdi deliberately set the opera in the Paris of his own day, an unusual proceeding at the time. For next week's production Taiwan theater-director, poet and film-maker Hung Hung is setting it in an indeterminate period, but with strong references to modern Taipei, especially in the party that constitutes the third act.