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MUSIC REVIEW : Love Fest With a Korean Coloratura

TIMES MUSIC CRITIC

As far as the general public was concerned, Sumi Jo’s concert at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion on Monday was a well-kept secret. As far as the Korean community was concerned, the appearance of the rising Korean coloratura represented a massive, joyous convocation.

The event was sponsored by Samsung in conjunction with the Korean Central Daily. Young Sup Lee, publisher of the newspaper, probably said it all in a greeting printed in the special bilingual program.

“I am sure,” he wrote, “that this evening’s concert will be the most memorable cultural event you have ever experienced.”

Some 3,200 partisans seemed eager to agree. This, clearly, was a reciprocal love fest, an occasion for national pride as well as musical celebration.

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The object of everyone’s affections, resplendent in one lavish gown before intermission and another after, sang, for the most part, like an enchanted creature from another planet. At ovation time, she stretched her pretty arms to her audience--a standing audience, of course--slowly clasped her own slender shoulders, closed her eyes and tilted her head to the left in a perfectly choreographed, much appreciated symbol of universal embrace.

It seemed as if the flowers, the wreaths, the cheers, the blown kisses, the waving and the encores would never end. All this and nary a tenor in sight.

Last encountered at the Music Center as the Queen of the Night in “Die Zauberflote,” Jo harks back to a vanishing vocal breed. In the days before Maria Callas and Joan Sutherland, coloratura sopranos had small, light voices that ascended the stratosphere with laughing ease and, most important, with staggering agility.

They didn’t have to produce much dramatic weight or much coloristic variety. But they did have to be dainty and demure, pretty and petite, graceful and girlish. They also had to be fearless.

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Remember the prima donna as perpetual ingenue and, occasionally, as pretend soubrette? Remember Amelita Galli-Curci? Remember Lily Pons? Remember Patrice Munsel? Remember Erna Sack, “The German Nightingale,” and her French vis-a-vis , Mado Robin? Remember the young Roberta Peters?

Jo proves that the amazing operatic canary is no dodo bird after all.

On this festive occasion, she scheduled five bravura arias plus three Korean specialties, followed by five generous encores. The accent was on favorite hits, and the diva made the most of them.

It wasn’t always easy. She was accompanied by the Glendale Symphony, which, on its own, played three popular overtures with game determination for an ever-earnest conductor named Jeong W. Lin, who appears to be something of a novice. Some things went well in terms of ensemble support and rapport. Other things just went.

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No matter. The protagonist’s smiling charm invariably salvaged the night.

The night began for her with Adolphe Adam’s variations on “Ah! Vous dirais je, Mamam,” a.k.a. “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.” It twinkled splendidly. Next came “Una voce poco fa” from Rossini’s “Barbiere” in a performance notable for saucy affect, florid spark and embellishment galore. Finally, to end the first half of the program, Jo performed “Caro nome” from Verdi’s “Rigoletto” with exquisite purity and a literally ethereal cadenza.

In the second half, she brought much feeling and finesse to three sentimental Korean melodies, identified as “The Blue Birds” by Dong Sun Chae, “As the Spring Approach Over the River” by Keung Soo Lim and “Ari Arirang” by Chung Jun Ahn. Finally, after pausing for a sluggish “Fledermaus” overture, she returned to be glittery and gay in Cunegonde’s big scena from Leonard Bernstein’s “Candide"--a preview of imminent Ahmanson attractions.

Jo sang with astonishing fluidity and silver-bell precision in each challenge, apart from a couple of climactic tones in altissimo that blanched a hair below pitch. She managed some lovely diminuendo effects, and proved that a small voice need not suffer from a limited dynamic range.

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When she wasn’t showing off as a high-wire acrobat, she proved that she commands considerable introspective skill in matters of lyric suavity. The virtuosa is also an artist.

The encore list included two elegiac, perfectly poised Korean songs (one unaccompanied), plus three more arias: the easy and inevitable “O mio babbino caro” from Puccini’s “Gianni Schicchi,” “Mein Herr Marquis” from Johann Strauss’ “Fledermaus” and the “Italian Street Song” from Victor Herbert’s “Naughty Marietta.” The audience accepted the singer’s cheery invitation to clap along for the American operetta kitsch.


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