Concert notes: a Chunghyang operatic evening at the KCC

Chunhyang and Mongryong
Kim Kyung-hee (left) and Jang Ji-hyun as Chunhyang and Mongryong
Sol Opera Company has just been on a European tour, and before it goes back to Korea it came to the Korean Cultural Centre to present some arias. Sol Sopera Company is based in Busan, and was introduced to the audience by the ROK ambassador, himself a Busanite. Sol has been going for seven years under the artistic direction of Professor Kim Youngmi. Not being based in Seoul, to a certain extent the cards are stacked against the company, but the ambassador highlighted their passion and enthusiasm and commitment to excellence.

Of course, in the space available in the KCC, the singers could not be accompanied by full orchestra. We had to make do with a small baby grand, tucked into the corner of the multi-purpose space; and a small stage was created for the singers.

I am always reluctant to go along to recitals where singers, no matter how accomplished, perform isolated lollipops, accompanied by the piano, from larger works composed with a full orchestral accompaniment in mind. Piano reductions almost always sound trite, and place a great burden on the singer to carry the piece.

The Governor
Cho Hyun-il as the local governor
The Sol soloists acquitted themselves well. The main draw of the evening was a selection of arias from an operatic setting of Korea’s favourite folk tale, Chunhyang. The story will be familiar to many, and the ambassador and the programme notes helpfully gave a synopsis. What would have been just as useful, though, would have been a little information about the composer, Hyun Je-myeong, and what inspired his work. An internet search reveals nothing about him available in English. The opera was presumably composed in the twentieth century, and is in a style immediately accessible and familiar, similar to Italian opera pre-Verdi.

We were given a selection of five arias from the opera, and devoid of their dramatic context and bereft of a full orchestral score it was difficult to engage fully with them, though the tunes were pretty and well sung. The audience were able to relax more into the recital when the performers moved on to more familiar arias by Mozart, Donizetti and Puccini.

Kim Young-mi
Kim Young-mi sings Malotti’s Lord’s Prayer
Sadly, it seems that the singers had not had a chance to rehearse all together for the ensemble works. While a quartet version of O Sole Mio went off without a hitch, in one of Korea’s more popular songs, Choi Young-seob’s Longing for Mt Kumgang, the baritone did not seem to know the words and made a poor show of lipsynching the tenor. Unusually, the encore was not an Arirang, but instead You Raise me up, clearly a party piece of the soprano Kim Kyung-hee. It should have been sung as a solo. But this being an encore she had the other singers to consider. Perhaps, feeling relaxed and among friends, the group thought the audience wouldn’t mind an unrehearsed encore, so the singers (except for the lead soprano) came on with the sheet music to follow.

Not all professional singers are good sight-readers. Maybe the light was not good enough for them to see the music; maybe they struggled with the English words. But if you had ferried a few of the regulars from Marylebone’s Golden Eagle pub they would have done a better job of improvising some harmonies than the three professional singers with the music in front of them, who were completely at sea. Fortunately, the lead soprano carried the day and shrugged off the embarrassing accompaniment.

In the foyer afterwards a DVD of the full Chunhyang opera was playing – with full orchestra.

Sol Opera Company performed extracts from Chunhyang at the KCC on 5 June 2009

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