There might not have been much madness as promised in Sumi Jo’s recital at the Melbourne Recital Centre, but there was certainly a lot of love. And it wasn’t just in the arias, duets and songs. Sumi Jo has won hearts around the world for her thrilling lyric coloratura soprano voice, her artistry and her engaging personality. Her unique combination of attributes have resulted in her having the distinction being an Artist for Peace at UNESCO and an artist who represents South Korea.
A vision of feminine porcelain perfection, Sumi Jo made a stately entrance wearing a magnificent multilayered red gown, the first of four extravagant concoctions that were an integral part of her performance. In her 2012 Melbourne concert at Hamer Hall she had twirled around, pointing to the outsized bow on her gown, sharing the pleasure of wearing something visually exciting and beautifully crafted with her audience. She is a diva who couples a strong sense of theatre with an endearing playfulness.
These qualities are also evident in the way she negotiates the abundant flights of coloratura that seem tailor-made for her voice. Every note was crystal clear in the resonant acoustic of the Elisabeth Murdoch Hall as she demonstrated why her stratospheric upper range, astonishing agility and expressive warmth have made her the highest selling classical singer in the world. Her soft singing in particular was marked by purity of tone and animated energy as she poured out cascades of notes in fine bel canto style. Benedict’s “La Capina” (The Wren), that opened the concert, and Alyabyev’s “The Nightingale” were perfect songbird vehicles for showcasing her technical brilliance.
Purcell’s “Music for a While” might have seemed a surprising choice, but it gave listeners an opportunity to hear another dimension of Sumi Jo’s artistry. A peaceful mood with its gentle fall of “drop, drop, drop” contrasted well with the coloratura flourishes of “La Capinera”. With piano lid all but closed, Guy Noble’s deferential accompaniments were always responsive to her expressive singing. In his customary honey-toned, relaxed ABC radio style, he introduced Argentine Australian baritone, José Carbó, best known to the audience for his outstanding performances with Opera Australia. Carbo began a vibrant account of Rossini’s “Largo al Factotum” offstage, sweeping listeners away with beautiful ringing tone and expansive dramatic skills. He followed this with “No Puedo Ser” from a zarzuela by Sorozábel.
In a program encompassing a surprisingly wide range of music and languages, two contrasting songs from Sumi Jo’s home country were a must. Sung in Korean, details of the text could not be understood by most of the audience but the yearning sentiment of “Longing” and the delight in “Flower Clouds” were communicated effectively. In addition to repertoire sung in Italian, English, Spanish and Korean, popular items by Lehar, Strauss and Korngold provided a German component. Of course, “Lippen Schweigen” from The Merry Widow was also a cue for a graceful waltz.
Several duets gave an opportunity for Sumi Jo and Carbo to make the most of comic opportunities and have fun. Donizetti’s “Pronto lo Son” showed what she could do in the way of vocal colouring and acting as they explored ways to fool Don Pasquale. It was an uplifting way to end the first half of the program. The most unexpected duet came during the encores. It began with her head, crowned with cat ears appearing mischievously around the stage entrance. The willing accompanist entered decked out in his own cat ears to join her in Rossini’s “Cat Duet”. Her melodious yowling, punctuated by the occasional hiss, suggested Sumi Jo might have a tiny cat gene buried in her DNA, so convincing was it. Guy Noble’s various duties made him much more physically involved and prominent as a fellow artist than is usual in a concert.
In the famous duet from Porgy and Bess, Sumi Jo and Carbo sang with tenderness and passion, reveling in the joys of love, but the aria that followed and concluded the concert proper was genuine bel canto madness. Bellini’s “Mad scene” from I Puritani moved from the most beautiful and poignant expression of forlorn sadness to a dazzling display of bravura singing. It was mad for love at its most compelling.