Bel Canto Diva Sumi Jo Wows Festival Audience!
Korean-born Sumi Jo is well-known as an international artist specializing in the coloratura soprano repertoire. She was an excellent choice for the first Festival Bel Canto with her success in a wide range of roles in operas by Bellini and Donizetti. In addition, Sumi Jo studied at the Santa Cecilia Academy in Rome, one of the artistic collaborators on the festival with the Orchestre symphonique de Montréal (OSM). Sumi Jo gave us a taste of this repertoire last night but she also dazzled the audience with superb performances of Mozart's Exultate, jubilate and, as a much deserved encore, with a highly theatrical excerpt from Offenbach's Tales of Hoffman.
Once again Le Chapiteau on Tibbits Hill overlooking Lac Brome was filled to capacity as Festival Bel Canto 2008 entered its second and last weekend. And in this summer of near legendary rainfall in the Eastern Townships the sun was shining and the temperature was, well, as it should be in the middle of summer – warm. Kent Nagano and the OSM opened the evening with Haydn's Symphony No. 101, nicknamed "the Clock" for its tick-tock effect in the second movement. How this piece fits into a bel canto festival is a mystery to me, and Dieter Rexroth's essay on bel canto in the festival's programme book sheds no light on the matter. More likely than not, we were treated to the Haydn simply because the OSM presented this entire Tibbits Hill programme in Montreal just a few days ago minus the bel canto focus.
In any case, Nagano gave us a welcome taste of his current approach to music of the classical period. To my ears, it shows the influence of Nikolaus Harnoncourt. This means a preference for quick tempi, particularly in slow movements and minuets, very little vibrato, lots of expressive variety in bowing, strong accents, and forceful trumpets and timpani. Whether one agrees with all of the interpretative decisions or not, Nagano's Haydn is fresh and thoughtful and on this occasion the OSM gave him everything he asked for.
Even before she sang a note Sumi Jo's first appearance in a tight low-cut blue green evening gown was greeted with oohs and aahs and even cheers. The same thing happened again in the second half when she reappeared in an even more dazzling gold gown. Sumi Jo is a beautiful woman and her sparkling form-fitting gowns were designed to show her off to the max. After only a few bars of Mozart's Exultate, jubilate it was clear to all in the hall that she is not only a great beauty, but also a great artist. Her bel canto runs and trills were delivered with effortless clarity and the top note in the final Alleluia rang out with confidence and fullness. Nagano and the OSM were with her every step of the way.
After intermission Nagano warmed up the band again with Rossini's La scala di seta overture. Wonderful playing especially from the oboe soloist. It is a challenge to keep track of who is playing on any given night at the festival since the OSM has split the 100-piece orchestra into two sections, and sends only one section for each concert. I can't be sure but I believe it was associate principal Margaret Morse who played so many notes so quickly and so well in the oboe solos. Later, Nagano led a performance of the overture to Bellini's Norma, perhaps for those unable to get a ticket for the full opera in its two performances at the festival.
Ultimately, the night belonged to Sumi Jo who was featured in excerpts from Donizetti's Linda di Chamounix, Bellini's I Capuletti e I Montecchi, and Bellini's I Puritani. All were performed with total involvement and mastery of the numerous technical challenges. It should be emphasized that Sumi Jo chose arias of substance rather than those with crowd-pleasing virtuosity, just as June Anderson had done in her concert in the festival last weekend. My favourite in Sumi Jo's bel canto group was Giulietta's romance from I Capuletti e I Montecchi, not least of all because of the hauntingly beautiful French horn obbligato.
Sumi Jo has recently enjoyed great success in performances of Offenbach's Tales of Hoffmann and on the basis of what she showed us last night one can see why. Offenbach is not one of the "official" bel canto composers but much of this opera draws heavily on stylistic features of the vocal writing of Bellini and Donizetti. With Kent Nagano alternately wielding a baton and a key, Sumi Jo sang the great aria for Olympia the mechanical doll. Music and movement were presented with almost uncanny skill in this immensely entertaining aria. The audience demanded more and Sumi Jo sent them home even happier with "O mio babbino" from Puccini's Gianni Schicchi.
I'll be at Bellini's Norma today, the festival's final offering in this inaugural season. I'll post a report on that and then offer an overview of the festival's achievements and shortcomings based on my own thoughts and observations and a conversation with the festival's founding spirit and honorary chairman, Marco Genoni.
Paul E. Robinson is the author of Herbert von Karajan: the Maestro as Superstar and Sir Georg Solti: his Life and Music, both available at www.amazon.com. For more about Paul E. Robinson please visit his website at www.theartoftheconductor.com.