Sumi Jo, for many people, is the quintessential operatic superstar. That fine voice and big personality should fill any hall with an unmistakably distinct brightness that can only come from sincerity. She has always preferred the solo concert, though, over opera.
Last Feb. 1, Manila music lovers were treated to an unforgettable recital at SM Aura’s Samsung Hall.
Jo’s luminous lyric coloratura, for the most part, remained unblemished. The top notes were en pointes, clear-cut and never shrill, and the middle range maintained a timbre of steady tone production that was warm and affectionate. The reach of her dynamic range was of the most ethereal quality, especially when those mezza voces were drawn from the tenderest of moments. There was nothing to doubt then, when Maestro Karajan called her “a voice from above.”
She began with “Lo, Here the Gentle Lark,” from Henry Bishop’s adaptation of Shakespeare’s “The Comedy of Errors.” For once, I appreciated the fact that this Bishop song survived within the space of the coloratura repertoire, given that his reputation suffered considerably in the 20th century. It is indeed an excellent warm-up piece: a song that is not entirely a trifle, at least when it comes to its musical demands, but with an ease enough to set the right mood for the audience.
There was a slight unevenness to the distribution of sound in the hall and one’s ears needed some time to adjust to it. Jo’s entrance after the introduction suffered a bit, but it wasn’t her fault. I was bound to focus on the agility with which she attacked those runs, the precision and delicate balance which characterized the cadenza dialogue between her and flutist Raymond Sarreal, making their rendition of this “aria di imitazione” a lovely one.
Jo, together with pianist Najib Ismail, created a formidable sound world with the two succeeding arias—“Sposa, son disprezzata” from Vivaldi’s “Bajazet,” and “Lascia ch’io pianga” from Handel’s “Rinaldo.”
Jo’s phrasing shaped and carried every line to varying emotional and musical heights, with all the finesse, flexibility and elegance of a true bel canto. Ismail’s playing was as numinous as it was palpable, touchingly real and human. Even something as spare as the opening bars of “Sposa” was transformed into the smallest but most precious keepsake.
It was, of course, expected that, as the night progressed, Jo would have sang a few of the most virtuosic coloratura pieces. The decisiveness and sheer attention to spacing and dynamics were all evident in her performances of “Ah, Vous dirais Je, Maman” from Adam’s “Le Toreador,” J. Strauss’s “Danube Waltz,” and Dell’Acqua’s “Villanelle.” The lightness in her upper register was never simply tenuous but of an unmatched clarity that never failed to elicit gasps from the audience.
The second half of the program included several, relatively lighter numbers. What was especially interesting about the programming was the seemingly inadvertent lack of sophistication. Some of the songs were based on popular melodies and trivial ditties, or familiarly so, in our generation, used and rehashed as pop songs or as part of a movie soundtrack. I applaud Sumi Jo for bringing these songs back to their original contexts.
For the record though, in all honesty, I have nothing against Elvis Presley or Enya.
Sumi Jo’s musicality has an effortlessness to it. There is intention to every musical decision and a generosity to deliver that music to every audience. Whatever liberties she took with some of the pieces were tastefully done and had nothing of the crudeness found in concerts where the artist feels entitled to do so because she can, or worse, because it’s her whim.