Seats are already sold out for three of the six Taipei performances of Puccini’s most beautiful opera, which takes place later this month. It’s essentially an Opera Australia production adapted for Taiwan’s National Theater, with guest soloists sharing the major roles with some of the best voices Taiwan has to offer. The National Symphony Orchestra under Lu Shao-chia (呂紹嘉) will be in the pit.
The production’s top selling-point is that the faithless American husband, Lieutenant Pinkerton, will be sung in three of the performances (25, 27 and 29 July) by Richard Troxell, the US tenor who stars in the best DVD of the opera, directed by Frederic Mitterand and dating from 1995 (Sony Classical 05670). All tickets are now sold for these three performances, however, though returns may become available.
But the Georgian tenor Zurab Zurabishvili, who will sing Pinkerton on the other three evenings, has a vigorous, piercing voice and may prove to be just as exciting. There are some stunningly-sung arias from Tosca by him on YouTube.
Cio-Cio San (Butterfly) will be sung by the Australian soprano Cheryl Barker (July 25, 27 and 29) and the Taiwanese soprano Lin Ling-hui (林玲慧, July 26, 28 and 30).
Barker has a long, successful history in the role, but Lin Ling-hui is almost wholly unknown outside Italy where she’s spent the last twelve years studying and teaching. She’s an unexpected choice, but the fact that she’s been selected by three contemporary Italian composers for their world premiere recordings makes it possible Taipei is in for a surprise.
Either way, the three performances with Lin and Zurab Zurabishvili will clearly be totally different from the sold-out three with Barker and Troxell. Some mid-price tickets are still available at the time of writing for their dates (26, 28 and 30 July) and should be snapped up immediately.
The role of Sharpless, the US Consul, will be shared by Wu Bai Yu-Hsi (巫白.玉璽, 25, 27 and 29 July) and Tsai Wen-hao (蔡文浩, 26, 28 and 30 July). Wu is known for many masterly portrayals in Taipei, not least his Don Giovanni in 2004. Tsai now lives in the UK but is a frequent return visitor to Taiwan; he sang Figaro here in 2006.
The crucial role of Suzuki, Butterfly’s maid, will be sung in all performances by Weng Jo-pei (翁若珮), most recently heard in Taipei in Bach’s St Matthew Passion and Puccini’s Suor Angelica. And the house- (and marriage-) agent Goro will be sung by Fernando Wang (王典), winner of the first prize in the Singapore International Vocal Competition of 2010.
Madama Butterfly has always seemed an opera especially fitted to Taiwan. I can’t count the number of Taiwanese friends, now no longer young, who’ve told me they have a lover in the US who will one day return. Many a tear will doubtless be shed in the National Theater that’s not only prompted by Puccini’s heart-wrenching music.
James Joyce, though a modernist as a writer, loved the operas of Puccini. He’d beg the price of the cheapest ticket from his brother Stanislaus, then scramble up to the gallery and sit in tears as Butterfly sang that her American husband would one day return — a prediction that turns out to be correct, though in what are going to be tragic circumstances.
The opera dates from 1904, though Puccini subsequently revised it several times. It’s set in Nagasaki, the Japanese city where foreigners were most free to establish themselves in the late 19th century. A young American naval officer, Pinkerton, is about to marry a 15-year-old Japanese girl, Cio-Cio San, a match arranged by the devious agent Goro. After Pinkerton discusses the arrangement with the US consul, Sharpless, Butterfly and her entourage approach, singing music of matchless beauty and poignancy.