Academy of Ancient Music and Sumi Jo / Singapore Arts Festival 2011 / Review

Singapore Arts Festival 2011 / Esplanade Concert Hall / Monday (16 May 2011)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 18 May 2011 with the title "Sumi Jo lights up the stage".

Those who expected superstar soprano Sumi Jo to have sung more in this concert should have a double take on the title. This was to be a concert by the Academy of Ancient Music (AAM) with Jo as its guest artist, rather than the other way around. For the record, she sang just six songs in the main programme, in between three eye-catching changes of evening gowns.

The Korean “Queen of Coloratura” made a significant departure from her usual territory of Romantic showstoppers to delve into Baroque finery. As with great singers past and present, the results were still nothing short of spectacular. If one expected her to tone down her usual fire to fit the quaint and light sound of the period instrument movement, there was to be nothing of that sort.

Singers live for the joy of vibrato, and that was what she delivered without fear. In her opening aria, Vivaldi’s Nulla In Munda Pax, the bright and luminous glow which all have come to expect was immediately apparent. Ever careful with enunciation of words, she crafted every note with pristine clarity, and never in the expense of the seamless flow of the music.

For the faster tempo and higher reaches of Handel’s Tornami a vagheggiar (from Alcina), the figurative gloves came off with dazzling short runs and long held notes, all spiced up with tasteful ornamentations, and never mere display for its own sake. In Vivaldi’s Sposa, son disprezzata (Bajazet), the lament of a forsaken wife, coloured in gloomy tones, was one deeply felt.

William Carter’s theorbo (an ancient plucked instrument) and ensemble director Richard Egarr’s harpsichord was the only accompaniment in Purcell’s Music For The Moment (Oedipus), where the full unadorned glory of Jo’s artistry could be keenly appreciated. Not one to give up on fireworks completely, this was followed by Handel’s celebratory Let The Bright Seraphim (Samson), where her joyous issues were superbly echoed by David Blackadder on the natural valveless trumpet.

People came to admire Jo’s vocal acrobatics, and they were not to be disappointed with her closing number, Vivaldi’s Agitata, da due venti (Griselda). Translated as Shaken By Two Winds, it revelled in the fast and furious. Her athleticism in quick fire repeated notes was matched by animated responses to the orchestral playing with fits of head nodding and wide smiles.

She was having a whale of a time and the expected cheers were rewarded with two substantial encores, including the sublime Laschio lo pianga from Handel’s Rinaldo. In between all that, the ensemble led by Egarr from the harpsichord had also performed two Handel concerti grosso, a Handel sonata and sinfonia (The Arrival of the Queen of Sheba), a Purcell suite and an Albinoni concerto. 150 minutes had passed ever so quickly, but more on the AAM in tomorrow’s review.

Richard Egarr speaks at a post-concert dialogue.