Chinese-Canadian soprano Liping Zhang has sung around the world and her star is already a well-established phenomenon on the opera stage. She is most readily associated with Covent Garden and acclaimed for her rendering of the role of Madame Butterfly. Some critics have gone to the extent of declaring Zhang's "Butterfly" as best of any living performer. Her debut, EMI Classics' Arias, finally brings Zhang's talent to disc. It comes a little late, as in 2008 Zhang announced her move back to Beijing from London, where she has accepted a new role, that of director of the Central Conservatory's voice and opera department, a move that will doubtless curtail Zhang's ability to appear in Western opera productions. One wonders if the release of this disc might be, in part, a measure to forestall the inevitable withdrawal her diehard Western fans will suffer once she is off the boards, owing to her admirable decision to devote herself to bringing Chinese operatic productions up to a level worthy of those in the West. Nevertheless, the arrival of Arias is better late than never, and extends access to Zhang's talent to a wider audience than might have encountered her in opera.
Zhang is a light lyric soprano, and her singing is clear and rather bright; she is more like a cool, tall glass of water than Bordeaux. Zhang's voice is so light that it nearly has a soubrette quality, though it is not without its dramatic capabilities; listen to her take on "Sempre libera." Giordano Bellincampi leads a smaller incarnation of the Prague Philharmonic that would be usual in such a recital, and they hold back to the extent that at first listen the band seems strangely uninvolved with the proceedings, except in places where they are required to sing out, such as at the big climax in "Un bel di." It is a pity that the last named aria is the only one on the program from Zhang's signature role. However, as album annotator -- and longtime Liping Zhang supporter -- Hugh Canning puts it, "she has carefully avoided the fate of many earlier Asian sopranos, being typecast either as the Japanese geisha or the Chinese slave girl."
That may be, but Zhang's sense of characterization seems much stronger in the Puccini roles than they are elsewhere here, save "Sempre libera." "Casta diva" is taken at a quick pace, sounding almost happy, rather than a solemn entreaty to the moon-goddess. Zhang is very good at covering notes that do not quite come off; you wonder sometimes if she made it or she didn't, and turning back, you find she didn't but you could have sworn that she had. Judicious retakes would have eliminated this element, but it appears this session and release was done in a hurry; recorded in three days in May 2008, the disc arrived on shelves in London on October 8. Almost anything less than good about Arias has to do with the hasty circumstances under which it was developed; Zhang is a strong talent, but not altogether a transcendent one, and the lack of refinement and nurturing in this project both limits and localizes its appeal; Zhang's already established following will get it, but curious outsiders might not. Typecasting notwithstanding, a video production of Madame Butterfly with Zhang in the lead role would probably have spoken volumes more about her talent than this whole CD does; however, as a souvenir to fans who soon will be missing her, much as Cio Cio San longs for Pinkerton to return, it might well serve as a placebo.