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Sunday's Korean Special: Sumi Jo

Sumi JoArriving at the Kennedy Center last Sunday for Sumi Jo’s concert, it quickly became apparent that these days, the former glory of super-coloratura stardom has withered to mere ethno-stardom, the like of which (Hvorostovsky comes to mind) draw their countrymen and -women in hordes but are only of peripheral, sometimes perplexing interest to the general public. That should be surprising, because unlike other such artists, Sumi Jo is a bona fide great of the singing world – or at least she once was. Still, less than ten percent of the audience in the reasonably well-filled Concert Hall were non-Korean.

On the program – titled “Beautiful Challenge, Sumi Jo in Concert – Celebrating her 20th Anniversary in Opera” – was an array of arias that would undoubtedly show whether she still had the instrument that made her famous and loved among audiences, critics, and musicians. Starting with two beautiful Vivaldi arias - Agitata da due venti from Griselda (a coloratura show-stopper) and Sposa son disprazzata from Bajazet (lyrical) – she proved off the bat that agility and voice are still in ample supply and good condition, even if the vibrato is no longer quite as electric, sometimes bordering on a tremolo in Sposa whenever she opened up on a long held note. Handel’s Da Tempeste followed the Vivaldi and was pulled off with panache as well, if perhaps less impressively so and hardly in the style that audiences have come to appreciate in Baroque music over the last fifteen, twenty years.

Other Reviews:

Joe Banno, Sumi Jo (Washington Post, June 6)

Charles T. Downey, Sumi Jo at the Kennedy Center (DCist, June 6)
At least here, if not quite as much in the rest of the program, her pianist Vincenzo Scalera was remarkable. He may not have even gotten mention on the front of the program (his bio showed up on the very last page), but he surprised with his colorful, musical, generally pleasant play – several notches above many accompanists of more famous artists. “Co-repetitor” or “accompanist” and “pianist” or “musician” are usually mutually exclusive, but from the young (-looking) Italian-American Scalera -- who has accompanied, apart from Sumi Jo, Renata Scotto, Carlo Bergonzi, and José Carreras (and that’s just on disc!) and played continuo in several Abbado recordings -- less should probably not have been expected.

Library of Congress's score of Dell'Acqua's 'Villanelle'Eva Dell’Acqua’s Villanelle (The Peasant Song) was less successful, with exposed top notes barely reached and at a cost of volume and pitch-accuracy – and the aria’s musical content having been significantly less important to the composer than giving his soprano at the time the ability to impress with acrobatics. In that sense she (Dell’Acqua) calculated correctly: it did impress the audience greatly.

Charles Gounod (Serendade - pleasant but with signs of that Erika Köth wobble I don’t much like), Adolphe Adam (an aria based on Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star from Le Toréador - modestly enjoyable, rapturously received), JungJun Ahn’s Ari-Ariang (a Korean “From Sea to Shining Sea” but here sounding like a very westernized, very trite ditty to meaningless text sung in an indeterminable language – Korean allegedly, but it could have been English just as well – with a Hollywood twist that made it as authentically Asian as are the spring rolls at “Yum’s – Chicken Wings, Pizza, Chinese, Sea Food” on 14th St.) and Donizetti (O Luce di quest’ Anima from Linda di Chamonix - most lovely; tra la la la la la) rounded out the first half of the program.

The second half – Sumi Jo now in a dress that was half pastel Papagena, half tie-dye taffeta explosion – opened with three American pieces: Julius Benedikt’s Gypsy & the Bird, Aaron Copland’s Pastorale, and Henry Bishop’s Lo! Here the Gentle Lark. Even if they did not cater as much to her strengths, they pleased before Mr. Scalera got to play Gershwin’s Preludes for Piano on his own, which turned out to be very purposeful playing: it gave Sumi Jo just enough time to now appear in an elaborate drapery of gold and hair/chest coordinated sparkle. Johann Strauss II and his Kennst Du das Land wo die Zitronen blüh’n? waltzed around merrily, fragile; pronunciation, here as elsewhere, was but a minor concern. The concluding È strano from La Traviata brought the house down.

Five encores appeased the enthused crowd – only one of which was truly memorable: an uproariously acted (and better sung still) Olympia (from Offenbach’s Tales of Hoffmann) ended the night on – the sad pun be forgiven – a high note. The only bad aftertaste was the inexcusably inadequate PR work of her management (SMI – Entertainment). The Kennedy Center could have been filled to the last seat, had they not focused exclusively on Korean ex-pats to come hear Sumi Jo. And if the ushers had not kept patrons from entering the concert hall (!) with a violin (!!) on grounds that it presented a fire hazard (!!!) – that might have helped, too. (Good thing no one told that overzealous chap that there was an entire piano already inside – clearly an even greater threat to the safety of patrons.)