Disdaining any onstage warmup pieces, Korean soprano Sumi Jo opened her recital Saturday at the Walt Disney Concert Hall with baroque blockbusters by Vivaldi and Handel. Soon she was surmounting coloratura hurdles by Adam and Donizetti. And even after closing the program with Violetta's demanding first-act soliloquy from "La Traviata," she sang the glittering "Doll Song" from Offenbach's "The Tales of Hoffmann" as one of -- count them -- five encores.
Clearly, Jo was at the height of her considerable powers and stamina as she concluded a seven-city tour celebrating the 20th anniversary of her opera debut as Gilda in Verdi's "Rigoletto" in Trieste, Italy, in 1986.
The tour, which began May 25 in Vancouver, was partly sponsored by the Korea Times, and drew a large, predominantly Korean audience to Disney Concert Hall. In Vancouver and New York, Jo was accompanied by an orchestra. Here, she had the excellent support of pianist Vincenzo Scalera, who also accompanied her on other stops and whom she acknowledged frequently and with generosity.
Starting the recital with such reckless fearlessness had its risks. In the hopscotch jumps from low to high in "Agitata da due venti" from Vivaldi's "Griselda," Jo's lower notes sounded underpowered, and it took a while for her to get the measure of the hall. Still, her upper range blossomed with luminous purity, and she sang the trills and other pyrotechnics in Handel's "Da Tempeste" from "Giulio Cesare" with pinpoint accuracy and ease.
Between these two pieces, she showed her mastery of the expressive bel canto technique of \o7messa di voce\f7 -- swelling from soft to loud and back again -- in "Sposa son disprezzata" from Vivaldi's "Bajazet."
Jo has sometimes been criticized for being emotionally detached and bland. But here she was engaged, varied in personality and vocal color, and even playful.
Certainly, she sang Jungjun Ahn's Korean song "Ari-Arirang" with special feeling, but she also portrayed Violetta with sensitivity and textual integrity. She found yet another, lighter voice for "O luce di quest' anima" from Donizetti's "Linda di Chamounix."
She also sang diverse works -- some showpieces, some not -- by Dell'Acqua Eva, Gounod, Julius Benedict, Copland, Strauss Jr. and Henry Bishop (his delightful, Haydn-esque "Lo! Here the Gentle Lark").
Scalera had a solo turn, playing Gershwin's three Preludes. Although elsewhere he was a model of stylistic sensitivity, he played Gershwin with stiff, almost academic formality.
Jo's other encores were two Korean songs ("Azeleas" and "Blue Mountain"), "Italian Street Song" from "Naughty Marietta" and Puccini's "O mio babbino caro," which she dedicated to her father, who died two months ago.