Academy of Ancient Music, Sumi Jo

Alexandra Coghlan on an evening of Mozart that leaves a sour taste.

Academy of Ancient Music, Sumi Jo
Cadogan Hall

It's a sign of the times that Britain can support two major period performance groups. The Academy of Ancient Music (AAM) and the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment (OAE) may share a repertoire, a philosophy of performance and even some musicians, but blindfolded there'd be no difficulty identifying each: the OAE with its glossy, burnished ensemble sound; the AAM all prickly energy and rough- and-tumble textures. There's a place for both, but not always in the same programme. An evening of Mozart with the Korean soprano Sumi Jo and the AAM suffered not so much from an elephant as a tiger in the rococo drawing room, as the orchestra's virtuosic ferocity circled uncomfortably around the ruffled diva.

Jo's heyday was in the late 1980s and early 1990s, with roles at the Met, Covent Garden, Paris and Salzburg, and she remains a singer of this era. There's a staginess that sits ill in the more purist ethos of today. Lesser-known Mozart orchestral works helped smuggle in a programme of high-class operatic lollipops, a disguise whose beard slipped fairly early on.

It is a brave soprano willing to open a performance with Mozart's notoriously demanding "Martern aller Arten" from Die Entführung aus dem Serail, but Jo - who is nothing if not game - struck out into its stormy coloratura seas, defying the lecherous Pasha Selim with slightly underpowered gusto. Balancing an upper register of flexibility and lightness is a rather substantial lack at the bottom, and Konstanze's more emphatic lower moments (together with those of "No, no, che non sei capace" that closed the evening), were lost, leaving the filigree ornamentation of the coloratura feeling unanchored. Better was the delicate melody-spinning of "Vorrei spiegarvi", though it became clear during the encores that this was where the real action was happening.

Pamina's restrained psychodrama "Ach, ich fuhl's" was a surprising choice, but offered some of Jo's best singing - less bulging through phrases, a greater sense of melodic direction. But taste was then abandoned in Jo's party-piece: variations on "Ah! vous dirai-je, maman" from Adolphe Adam's Le Toreador. Though she handled its technical absurdities impressively, it was hard not to hear this spun-sugar insincerity echoed back through the evening's programme.

The AAM are in their element in this repertoire. While the Overture from Le Nozze di Figaro lacked a little of the vibrant wit necessary to balance its noncommittal string shrugging, Mozart's D-major "Paris" Symphony was all swagger, finally offering the musical meat the programme's first half had lacked.

There's nothing wrong with an evening of Mozartian curiosities or a glitzy soloist showcase, but the attempt to combine the two ended up betraying both. There is a weight of dramatic conviction carried by Mozart's arias - in or out of context - and to ignore this is to misunderstand his art. No amount of orchestral modesty draperies could conceal the baser show going on here, and, however accomplished, the whole left a slightly sour note lingering in the ears.

This article first appeared in the 05 December 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The death spiral