MUSIC / All in all, just an ordinary Jo: Adrian Jack on a disappointing recital by Sumi Jo at the Wigmore Hall

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The Independent Culture
Had Sumi Jo not sung the Queen of the Night at Covent Garden recently you might have thought that she had dropped from a Christmas tree on to the stage of the Wigmore Hall, London, on Tuesday. Dressed to kill in pink, with shoulder pads and puffy net skirt, here was your living doll - a doll with a hard, bright voice that trilled and darted about obediently, though to no great expressive purpose.

She began with a group of songs by Rossini, in which she showed good Italian but an exaggerated way of flexing her tone, which bulged and contracted, complicating rather than enhancing the melody. It may have been meant as 'style', but she also tended to run short of breath. At the start she sounded a bit careful, perhaps even nervous - an impression to which her accompanist, Malcolm Martineau, added by staying rather too discreetly in the background.

Though canary-fancying can exist on the level of a spectator sport, in which the interest lies merely in vocal athletics, it gets more interesting when a bit of human warmth and charm is involved, and most of the songs that Sumi Jo chose stood to gain from it. She was cute and pert enough in Debussy's 'Pantomime', which didn't need to be much more than brittle and lively. But I could not detect a trace of irony, melancholy, any finer feelings or even much intelligence in 'Clair de Lune' and 'Apparition'. It is true that Debussy is known as an Impressionist, but Sumi Jo's French was simply woolly.

Nor did she show any gift for humour, though she made some unconvincing attempts at minor stage business, like pointing coquettishly at the pianist to start off Arditi's 'The Kiss' and pretending to look startled at his rival echoes in Meyerbeer's frothy 'Ombre legere'. But to do her justice, the Meyerbeer was very neatly sung. Indeed, the second half of the evening went considerably better than the first, with much more even tone production in some of Richard Strauss's dizziest songs. The preposterous, switch-back line of 'Amor' was drawn with perfect confidence, and although there wasn't much sense of wonder in 'An die Nacht', at least the curlicues of 'Ich wollt' ein Strausslein binden' (I would have bound a nosegay) were as sure-footed - though the song is actually about everything going wrong - as you're likely to hear.

The programme ended with Verdi's 'Caro nome', which, finally, almost touched my still-resisting heart; it was too much, probably, to expect any singer not to go very slightly flat in the final unaccompanied cadenza, and Martineau could be forgiven for making his tell-tale chord at the end as tactfully quiet as possible.

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