Sumi Jo, Asia’s leading diva, incomparably enthralling

SUNDRY STROKES - The Philippine Star

Deafening applause by the full house greeted Sumi Jo, Asia’s leading diva, the moment she appeared onstage at Samsung Hall.

Petite and pretty, she instantly endeared herself to the audience with her charming, engaging personality and a refreshing sense of humor. For the first half of the concert, she wore a glamorous, flaming red gown sparkling with rhinestones, and widely flaring at the hem. For the second part, her white gown was similarly stupendous, and while she occasionally tugged at its neckline, she declared, instead of apologizing, “This is the first time I am wearing this gown; aren’t you lucky?”

Her vastly diverse, multi-lingual program which demanded versatility and conversance with various periods, ranged from the 18th to the 20th centuries. It consisted of Rawley Bishop’s opera adaptation from Shakespeare’s Comedy of Errors, Vivaldi’s aria Let Me Weep from a baroque Italian opera, an aria from Adolf Adam’s French opera comique Les Toreadors, Martini’s French classical song The pleasure of love, Leo Delibes' Chanson Espagnole (Spanish Song) in French, calling to mind Bizet’s Habanera in Carmen; Eva Dell’ Acqua’s French art song Villanelle, Strauss’ popular Danube Waltz, the aria Summertime from Gershwin’s opera of Negro life, Porgy and Bess, Villa from Lehar’s operetta The Merry Widow, a song from Loewe’s Broadway musical My Fair Lady, this proving Sumi Jo’s later crossing-over to popular music.

Ari Arirang, a Korean folk song, was followed by Rachmaninov’s wordless Vocalise, described as “the rising and falling patterns of a haunting melody”, concluding with Ah, fors’e Lui (Perhaps it is he) from Verdi’s La Traviata, with the latter portion of the aria omitted.

Graceful, spirited yet refined stage movement enhanced Sumi Jo’s renditions.

Among Asians, only Filipinos were subjected to Spanish rule with its dominant cultural influences. Yet the Korean Sumi Jo, in the Chanson Espagnole, was a gracious Señorita conveying Spanish ardor, passion and abandon. In I Could Have Danced All Night, listeners felt like turning, whirling, gliding to the singer’s rhythmic verve. In La Traviata, the courtesan Violeta, with dramatic expressivity, momentarily wondered whether her true love was Alfredo.

Some sopranos may have a bit more pleasant, fuller, rounder timbre than Sumi Jo. In earlier decades, this reviewer has heard performances in Manila by such great Met singers as the Wagnerian soprano Helen Traubel, the Negro contralto Marian Anderson, Eleanor Steber, Lucine Amara, Beverly Sills and Montserrat Caballé.

Yet, Sumi Jo’s technical virtuosity is incomparable. She is in a class by herself.

Each number had considerable vocal fireworks. The trills were stunning; the legatos, subtly nuanced, exquisite, arresting and compelling attention. Sumi Jo demonstrated magnificent, superb control of dynamics. A pianissimo line, held long and firmly, would slowly and steadily increase in intensity, return to pianissimo, then grow again into a fortissimo which, sustained for an incredibly long while, culminate in a glorious, triumphant climax in fullest volume, with Sumi Jo’s arms upraised.

How effortless, how dauntless was the awesome execution!

It must have been this tour de force that led the legendary maestro Herbert von Karajan to say Sumi Jo’s voice was one from above, heard only once in a hundred years. How right he was!

The ecstatic, adoring audience, giving the singer a standing ovation and an extended, thunderous applause, was rewarded with Puccini’s O Mio Bambino (Oh, my beloved daddy) which Sumi Jo had sung in Paris for her father’s funeral in Korea; Ave Maria by Schubert, and the Korean Boribat for which she accompanied herself on the piano (exhibiting another aspect of her talent), while exhorting fellow Koreans to sing too.

Revealing her warm, affectionate nature, she kissed and hugged featured flutist Raymond Sarreal, who had accompanied her in two numbers, and her excellent, much sought-after assisting artist, pianist Najib Ismail.

Finally, she revealed her generosity by handing a check for disaster victims to a UNICEF representative. Audience jubilation continued even after Sumi Jo had exited from the stage.











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