I learned something remarkable at Cadogan Hall on Friday night: those Medieval transmutationists weren’t barking mad after all - alchemy is real. Take one South Korean soprano, one solo flautist, add a light dusting of French froth, and pure, gleaming gold will miraculously appear. The downside seems to be that if you don’t get the formula quite right, you’re stuck with something a bit nearer to lead for most of the evening.
Presented as Sumi Jo Sings Mozart, the Academy of Ancient Music under the direction of Richard Egarr, together with the celebrated coloratura soprano, Sumi Jo performed a programme in which the ratio of vocal to purely instrumental music (two arias and two orchestral pieces in each half) rendered its billing slightly misleading. The orchestra’s contribution to the evening was, as expected, a distinguished one despite some occasional inconsistencies. It consisted of a sober Overture from Le nozze di Figaro in which there were a few surprising coordination glitches between strings and woodwinds; four entr’actes from the incidental music to the play Thamos, König in Ägypten, performed as an ad-hoc symphony; the Maurerische Trauermusik, its funereally rich colours enhanced by the brooding presence of the rarely-heard basset horn; and an exuberant performance of Symphony no. 31, ‘Paris’ , the orchestra clearly relishing the muscular hyperactivity that is usually associated with Mozart and the key of D major. It was a well-balanced selection, although I have some reservations about the Thamos offerings. As entr’actes, they were never intended to be heard one after the other, and I remain unconvinced that they contain sufficient meat to sustain the listener’s interest when performed that way. Their juxtaposition with the Paris Symphony seemed to emphasise the problem.
Of course, the majority of the audience was there to hear Sumi Jo perform four of Mozart’s most demanding arias, two of which were written to enable the celebrated soprano Aloysia Weber to give the self-esteem of a more journeyman composer a good kicking. After all, if you’re an eighteenth-century diva in need of a couple of decent songs to insert into someone else’s opera for the purpose of showcasing your own particular skills (a standard practice at that time,) it doesn’t hurt to be the sister-in-law and former innamorata of the greatest musical genius of the age. Weber, due to appear in Pasquale Anfossi’s Il curioso indiscreto, thus found herself in possession of a pair of hair-raisingly virtuosic showpieces: “Vorrei spiegarvi, o Dio!” and “No, che non sei capace.” One can only imagine the extent to which Anfossi’s spirit was crushed by having his own talent publicly held up for comparison to the superior gifts of his Austrian contemporary. The other two arias performed by Ms Jo were taken from Mozart’s own operas: “Martern aller Arten” from Die Entführung aus dem Serail, and “Se il padre perdei” from Idomeneo.
Ms Jo walked to the stage, her demeanour, her gown and the extravagant two-armed flourish with which she greeted the audience loudly proclaiming her intentions to the hall. Consequently, what followed was something of a let down. By less than half way through “Martern aller Arten,” it had become apparent that all was not well. Two very different voices were on display. One was a secure, gleaming upper register, from which the rest of Ms Jo’s instrument seemed disconnected. The middle of the voice was, at times, dry, hard and unable to summon up sufficient heft to ride the orchestra. The inability to convey defiance completely undermined declamatory passages such as: “Ordne nur, gebiete, lärme, tobe, wüte, zuletzt befreit mich doch der Tod” (“Order, command, bluster, roar and rage! Death will liberate me in the end.”) The more lyrical sections were compromised by Ms Jo’s difficulty in sustaining a legato line. The coloratura was executed with the anticipated hallmark precision, but lacked expression to the extent that it almost became a technical study.
In “Vorrei spiegarvi, o Dio!” (adorned with some lovely oboe playing) the sumptuous Adagio that begins the piece further exposed problems hinted at in the first aria. Here, the primary requirement is to deliver a beautiful cantabile. Uneven vocal emission in the middle register and the repeated reluctance of the voice to “speak” on demand made achieving this objective something of a hit and miss affair. Furthermore, there were just too many instances of imprecise intonation for them to be allowed to pass unremarked. The florid passages were again notable for the ease with which they were negotiated, but also for the failure to imbue them with meaning. An exception to this was her plangent delivery of Mozart’s remarkable melismatic word-painting on “piangere” (“weep”). Towards the end of the coda, the upward leap of over two octaves from B below middle C was stunning in its fearlessness despite drawing attention to the bottom of the voice consisting mainly of air
During the interval I, reflected on Egarr’s entertaining pre-concert talk, and wondered whether he regretted leaving himself a hostage to fortune by declaring Sumi Jo to be one of the greatest ever coloratura sopranos. He would have done well to embrace the first rule in business for delivering a good customer experience: under-promise and over-deliver.
When Ms. Jo reappeared after the interval she had ditched her initial dress and changed into one that was even more eye-catching. (Why a perfectly good gown can’t cope with more than two arias is beyond me.) Lacking the requisite set of chromosomes I won’t even begin to try to describe it. Suffice to say, black and gold were going on in sufficient quantities to draw delighted gasps from around the hall. That aside, things continued in much the same vein. “Se il padre perdei” contains no vocal fireworks. There was, therefore, nothing to distract the attention from the same problems that had beset the soprano’s rendition of “Vorrei spiegarvi, o Dio!” By the final aria, “No, che non sei capace,” the highest notes in her voice, though still secure, were scratchy in tone, and a tendency to emphasise words eccentrically was becoming apparent.
I had by now concluded that Ms Jo was either indisposed or ill at ease in this repertoire. Two encores then contrived to make a complete conundrum of the evening. On the evidence of what had gone before, Pamina’s “Ach, ich fühl’s” from Die Zauberflöte was a risky choice. However, the orchestral scoring, lighter than in the preceding pieces, encouraged the middle of her voice to bloom and the legato to even itself out. It was a lovely rendition. As she left the stage, an additional music stand was placed beside the singer’s position, the catalyst for the start of the alchemical reaction referred to at the beginning of this review. Ms Jo reappeared with flautist Rachel Brown in tow, and launched into “Ah vous dirai-je, maman” from Adam’s opera, Le toreador (a reduction for voice of Mozart’s twelve piano variations on the same melody, one that English-speaking countries have subsequently come to know as “Twinkle, twinkle, little star.”) It was bizarre that, in an all-Mozart concert, it was another composer’s work, the most musically insubstantial item of the evening that finally inspired a performance worthy of a diva. The voice exploded with colour and brilliance; the runs were pyrotechnic; the legato was near perfect; and, with supreme irony, she found expression and meaning in coloratura written solely with the display of technical proficiency in mind. The transformation was physical as well as vocal. She winked playfully at the audience, conspired with the conductor, and joked with Ms. Brown, who matched her note for note. The standing ovation was as inevitable as it was instantaneous. It turned out that the superstar prima donna had been in the house all along. She had just been hiding.
This review cannot conclude without acknowledging the excellent complimentary programme produced for the event. Elegant, informative and well-researched, it put to shame the over-priced piece of error-strewn tat sold at the Royal Festival Hall for the recent Jonas Kaufmann concert.
Photograph © Askonas Holt