Vancouver Symphony

Sumi Jo: Special Concert

Date 25 May 2006, 20.00 Venue Orpheum Theatre

Conductor Bramwell Tovey

Reviewer J H Stape

Born in Korea, trained in Italy, and "discovered" by the late Herbert van Karajan, coloratura Sumi Jo, is now celebrating her twentieth year of a stratospheric career on the international operatic scene. She's one of those singers -- a true diva -- ever in demand in the major world centres, and this concert was a chance to grab with both ears. The capacity audience, with the Korean community strongly represented, got a treat -- a concert so committed, charming, and accomplished that standing ovations, roared thanks, and grasping for superlatives could be -- and were -- the only responses to it.

The six arias on the main programme were interleaved with operatic overtures, the night opening with that to Rossini's Semiramide (a slightly muddy performance, con brio but with the brass uncharacteristically not quite spot on). Ms Jo then burst onto the stage delivering an exquisitely crafted "O luce di quest'anima" from Donizetti's Linda de Chamounix. This was a superb display of bel canto, the text marvellously coloured and the embellishments simply perfect, a harbinger of the vocal art on display during the remainder of the evening.

Fast upon followed the mad scene from Lucia, with Ms Jo in character (as she was throughout the concert) and with seeming effortlessness delivering high C's and high E's with dramatic conviction. The overture to Don Pasquale shifted mood, and then came Bellini's "Qui la voce" from I Puritani. The delivery was astonishing -- each note a pearl gently caressed and valued, and the dramatic impact at full tilt.

After the intermission came the familiar Barcarolle from Offenbach's Tales of Hoffman, the orchestra now in its stride, and then the "Doll Song," Miss Jo adding to the thrilling vocal pyrotechnics a comic sense (nicely abetted by Maestro Tovey, who had the task of winding her up as she lost stream) of the first order. This was no less than show-stopping. She established another mood moments later with the charming waltz "Je veux vivre" from Gounod's Roméo et Juliette, another slam dunk -- every note beautifully placed.

The formal programme concluded with the Prelude to La Traviata and then É strano and Sempre libera that close the first act. The transition again astonished, the voice changing colour and timbre in a way that most singers can only dream about. Ms Jo, dressed in a gold confection, was every bit Violetta as she had been Hoffman's Doll, her mastery of the Italian style as complete and uncontestable as her command of trills and glissandi.

She gave unstintingly, a no-holds barred concert by a fine artist on the top of her form, gracing the proceedings with three encores: a Korean folk song, that bubbly old favourite "The Laughing Song" from Die Fledermaus (sung with aplomb), and a simply heartbreaking "O mio babuino caro" (O, my dear daddy) from Puccini's Gianni Schicci, dedicated to her father who had died two months ago and bringing tears to her eyes.

A warm presence, accomplished actress, and a singer of formidable power, Ms Jo gave a bravura concert, flecked with fire and grandeur. The repertoire for coloratura is heavy on the schzam factor, but she brought great art to it, and the smiles filling the theatre at the evening's close testified not only to deep satisfaction but to an understanding that art can indeed transform and uplift.

© 2006 J H Stape