Thursday, April 06, 2006

Sumi Jo in Paris

On Tuesday night, I took John out on a date to see one of the top coloratura sopranos in the world in action. Sumi Jo is Korean, but studied at the Saint Cecilia Conservatory in Rome (by the way, Saint Cecilia is the patron saint of music).

She gave an amazing performance of vocal fireworks, exquisite tonal beauty, and top artistry in phrasing and dynamics. Jo blew us away! The most difficult pieces were thrown off with such ease. And she demonstrated quite a range of tone, too. For her coloratura pieces (lots of superfast notes, often high and sometimes very high), she had the more typical, light tone for coloratura sopranos. But she was also able to bring out much more richness and fullness for the heavier second half of the program, which included lieder by Richard Strauss and arias from Verdi's La Traviata.

Dramatically and artistically, in my opinion, the peak came too early -- due to the piece itself. I had never heard this Vivaldi aria before from Bajazet, "Sposa, son disprezzata," but it was so moving and so delicately phrased -- I could tell everyone was holding their breath for the entire piece. It was really incredible. The rest of the first half of the program had some sexy and charming works, including the very whimsical Adolphe Adam aria, "Ah! vous dirai-je maman," from "Le Toreador, ou l'Accord parfait", which had the wackiest, wildest variations on Mozart's most famous theme (Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star).

Alas, I am super-critical. Although Jo was not to be matched by many other coloraturas out there, I still found a few things that bothered me. The clarity of her diction went in and out. Sometimes, I understood what she was singing perfectly, usually at the beginnings of phrases. but her words would get muddy towards the ends of phrases and in her higher range. She modified some vowels in her higher range which my voice teacher would have disapproved because some of those notes weren't really that high (just an F or fa). You really can't change the Italian word for God "Dio" into "D?o" -- it changes the meaning of what you're trying to communicate, especially in such a well-known aria as Puccini's "O mio babbino caro."

In recital, it can be difficult to decide how much acting to do and how many gestures to incorporate into a piece. I was in want of more acting and expression from Jo, whose face would annoyingly blank whenever she stopped singing (even if the piano was still playing). As singers, we need to communicate from the beginning to the end of a piece. Then there was often the awkward movements of the arms, which were repeated all too often. After no physical movement for almost an entire piece, an arm would get thrown out to emphasize a final, stratospheric note. Too strange. In other pieces, she would do the same movement, maybe with the other arm, maybe with both -- but exactly the same movement. At least two times, she reached out to the audience at the end of a phrase with her right arm. I don't mind physical movement during a recital, but it needs to have more of a context and be varied. How many times did she touch her right cheek with her right hand during the La Traviata works?

Jo wore a couple loud dresses in her program, the latter being bright orange with huge ruffles everywhere. Those showed her true personality underneath all her professional calm. The lengths of the dresses for the most part hid the sometimes distracting shifting of her right leg, forward and back, side to side -- must have helped with the coloratura.

I'm really too harsh. She was really wonderful. The French love her -- of course, with beautiful tone and vocal agility like that? We clapped until we got four encores, one of them a Korean song, and the final, Schubert's Ave Maria, in remembrance of her father's death. (I think it was her father. Jo spoke beautiful, though very soft, French during her intro to the song, but I thought I heard "mere" and "pere" and couldn't figure out which had passed away.) The funeral was that very morning and she had to miss it because of her singing engagement with us. But she knew her father would be happy she was singing. The story made the piece even more moving. Afterwards, the entire audience gave her a standing ovation. What courage it must have taken to come to Paris and perform under such circumstances!

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