From the land of the terra cotta warriors -- Xi'An -- comes mezzo-soprano Hui He, whose career was not made in Germany, Italy, England, nor at the Met, but in Shanghai. Winning second prize at the 2000 Plácido Domingo Operalia in Los Angeles, Domingo later appeared with her in concert in Shanghai. In 2002, He Hui (her proper Chinese name; Oehms has inverted it) took first prize in the Voci Verdiane in Parma before a jury chaired by Leyla Gencer. This distinction has largely served to deprive He of her loyal Chinese audience, although she does return annually to serve in the New Year Concerts in Beijing, which are televised nationally, and to participate in an opera production or two per year in Asia. However, her career since the Voci Verdiane has been centered in Europe, where He has sung to considerable acclaim, particularly in Italy. She has also enjoyed such perquisites as studying the role of Tosca with one of its greatest interpreters, Raina Kabaivanska; as her debut album Hui He sings Verdi and Puccini appears on the budget Oehms Classics label, He makes her home not in Shanghai, but in Verona.
He's marvelous, expansive wine-dark mezzo voice has nary a hint of Chinese accenting of the Italian, the bane of many a fine Chinese singer of Western opera. As this is her recording debut, He is quite careful and just sings; she does not attempt to imbue these performances with the strong aspect of characterization often noted in reviews of her live concert appearances. This is far from being a "perfect" recorded recital; while overall the Slovak Radio Symphony under Ivan Anguélov delivers a broad and lush-sounding complement, sometimes it is scrappy at the edges and sounds like the "town band," particularly in the opening of "Ritorna vincitor." The recording is likewise uneven; sometimes it is clear that the accompaniment is covering He at times when she should be more clearly heard, at others, she is left so alone and in the foreground you wonder whether two-thirds of the Slovak Radio Symphony is on strike or taking a smoke break. Such vagaries and the low budget employed for this project take their toll on the soloist; in a couple of spots her pitch drops a little below where it should be, not owing to an erroneous ear so much as one searching for support that has deserted it. One thing is clear from Hui He sings Verdi and Puccini -- she can SING. Although this might not be the most ideal vehicle through which a capable singer could introduce herself to the CD listening public, He sure can drive the bus, and it easily vindicates the opinions of the many Italians, Europeans, and Chinese who have gone crazy over her voice.