Sumi Jo Glitters, but All Is Not Gold

SingaporeSingapore Sumi Jo in Singapore,  Singapore Symphony Orchestra, Sumi Jo (soprano), Jason Lai (conductor), Esplanade Concert Hall, Singapore. 20.2.2014 (RP)

J. Strauss – Overture to Die Fledermaus
“Voices of Spring”
Lehár – “Vilja” from The Merry Widow
J. Strauss – “Neue Pizzicato” from Fürstin Ninetta
Lehár – “Lippen Schweigen” from The Merry Widow
J. Strauss – “Spiel’ ich die Unschuld vom Lande” from Die Fledermaus
Lehár – Gold and Silver Waltzes, Op. 79
Gounod – “Je veux vivre” from Roméo et Juliette
Rachmaninov – “Vocalise,” Op. 34 No.14
Offenbach – Overture from Orpheus in the Underworld
Lehár – “Meine Lippen, sie küssen so heiss” from Giuditta
Offenbach – “Les oiseaux dans la charmille” from Les Contes d’Hoffmann


Gala: Sumi Jo just about sums it up. Singing to a full house at Singapore’s Esplanade Concert Hall, the Korean diva appeared in four different gowns, each showcasing her lithe figure in a cascade of color, sequins, sparkles and really big ruffles. Singing repertoire that was more or less congenial to her voice at this stage of her career, she opted to be more of an entertainer than artist. The audience ate it up and rewarded her with cheers and rounds of applause.

Her finest singing came in the first of her four encores, “O mio babbino caro” from Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi. Her career was built upon bel canto roles, but she sang this verismo aria with warmth and charm. There was no playing to the audience, just simple, beautiful singing. Her “Vilja” from The Merry Widow was on the same level, displaying a rich middle voice. Her duet passage with the flute in “Voices of Spring” showed a bit more of Sumi Jo the artist. No one would expect her voice to have the flexibility and sparkle that it had decades ago, when Herbert von Karajan hailed it as “a voice from above.” Her singing of “Juliette’s Waltz” was a testament to the passage of time, and throughout the evening there were intonation problems, some slipshod coloratura and problematic high notes.

Sumi Jo the entertainer was front and center the rest of the evening. Her props included a fan, a wineglass and of course her fabulous dresses. She even waltzed at one point  ̶  well, at least moved in time with the conductor, much to the delight of the audience. “The Doll’s Song” was much more of a comic turn than a performance of this coloratura showpiece. Whenever her mechanical doll wound down, Jason Lai gamely cranked her back up and on she went. With all of the shtick, it was hard to gauge whether she could actually sing the aria.

After “O mio babbino caro”, she asked how many Koreans were in the audience. Many hands shot up. She then sang a lovely Korean song, but unfortunately most of it was inaudible. The same held true for the next two encore offerings: Maestro Lai let the orchestra drown her out. She had problems carrying across the orchestra throughout the evening, but had little chance against the exuberance of the conductor and orchestra in the final three encores.

Maestro Lai and the fine Singapore Symphony Orchestra did more than accompany Ms. Jo. The woodwinds did themselves proud in the opening overture to Die Fledermaus. Lai led the strings in a sprightly “Neue Pizzicato” polka, and clarinet and cello solos were beautifully played in the Offenbach overture. Lai and his forces clearly got into the spirit of the evening, but their professionalism and commitment to the music never wavered. Playing it straight brought its own reward, and the audience responded to that as well.


Rick Perdian