Review: Sumi Jo

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 11 February, 2014, 11:01am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 11 February, 2014, 11:01am

Sumi Jo
Hong Kong Philharmonic
HK Cultural Centre Concert Hall
Reviewed: Feb 7

The celebrated South Korean coloratura soprano Sumi Jo has appeared in leading roles at New York's Metropolitan Opera and has sold more than 1.2 million copies of her crossover album Only Love. All of which gave her a lot to live up to in this modestly proportioned, 70-minute programme of solo arias and orchestral interludes.

Conducting on his first appearance in the city was Jung-Ho Pak, described in the programme as "a revolutionary thinker in the world of classical music." There was little evidence, however, of any ground-breaking preparation for the orchestral items. Bernstein's Candide overture blazed away with maximum accuracy and minimum swagger; while Saint-Saens wouldn't have thanked Pak for getting the melodic balance so wrong in the climax to the bacchanale from Samson et Dalila.

But we were there for the delights of Sumi Jo's vocal artistry; also, it would seem, for her frocks, with three of them paraded during eight items. First up was a sweeping dress of wedding-cake pearl for Handel's Let the Bright Seraphim, complemented by a supremely confident trumpet obbligato solo from Joshua MacCluer and a wide vibrato from Jo that felt unsuitable for the piece. Singing to the stalls meant that we in the balcony heard a rather veiled version of Jo's voice for most of the evening, while her diction was uniformly poor. She sang as though consonants hadn't been fully invented yet, rendering the contrast of Rachmaninov's wordless Vocalise ineffective.

Technically assured throughout her range, Jo pulled out all her hallmark super-high notes with aplomb and finesse in dynamic control, not least for Olympia's aria from Offenbach's The Tales of Hoffmann. Less impressive was the evening's general lack of variety in vocal colour to reflect the lyrics. The vivid characterisations in Spiel ich die Unschuld vom Lande from Strauss' Die Fledermaus, ranging from country girl to majestic queen to French society lady, came nowhere near the variety and playfulness of the diva's wardrobe.

Sam Olluver