Renée Fleming delightful in madcap 'Living on Love'
Photo: Joan Marcus/Boneau/Bryan-Brown
April 20, 2015 | By Mark Kennedy
NEW YORK (AP) — What if you produced a play about soccer players and managed to get Pele to be in it? Or convinced Ruth Bader Ginsburg to star in a show set in a courthouse?
That's what the folks at "Living on Love" have pulled off with the madcap comedy about an opera singer, featuring Renee Fleming.
The four time Grammy Award winner is a delight in the show that opened Monday at the Longacre Theatre, able to lovingly goof on her refined world with an insider's grin.
"Please, call me — Diva," she introduces herself.
The gentle play by two-time Tony Award winner Joe DiPietro is based on the play "Peccadillo" by Garson Kanin. DiPietro, who wrote the book of "Memphis" and "Nice Work If You Can Get It," has a knack for writing for daffy characters and this play has a half-dozen of them. It feels comforting, like an old black-and-white film, and yet there's a newness here, too.
Set in a Manhattan penthouse in 1957, the play centers on an aging soprano, played by a bejeweled Fleming, and her lothario Italian conductor husband who prefers to go as simply Maestro. A fantastic Douglas Sills plays him like an impish boy beneath an exterior of shocking slicked-back arrogance and heavily accented English.
These two have been together for 30 years and are on the downswing career-wise. Bookings for her are drying up and he is being displaced by Leonard Bernstein. ("Maestro have-a more talent in teeny tiny pinky!" he thunders.)
Their marriage reaches a crisis point when a ghost writer — he calls them "spooky helper" — is sent to facilitate the Maestro's autobiography. But the gloriously nerdy ghostwriter, played by Jerry O'Connell, falls under the Diva's spell, requiring a new nervous ghostwriter (a great Anna Chlumsky, with spunk). The Maestro and Diva now have rival autobiographies cooking and potential new lovers to boot.
One of the play's joys is the performances of two stuffy servants — the exceptional Blake Hammond and Scott Robertson — who sing along to arias as they elegantly change the props between scenes or answer bells perfectly in sync. Their rendition of "Making Whoopee" is hysterical.
The play is directed with comedic aplomb by three-time Tony Award winner Kathleen Marshall, more often associated with big musicals. The material could be accelerated and made into a farce, but Marshall never lets the comedic elements upstage the slightly looney characters themselves.
For a play, "Living on Love" is full of music, as Fleming or the servants sing snippets of "Barber of Seville" or "Bolero" or "La Boheme." Having Fleming herself belt out notes — and self-pompously believe her voice has the ability to cure the disabled — is delicious.
The play ends with the only ending possible — although an unexpected detour is taken by the servants. Stick around after the curtain closes on this satisfying, sweet comedy and you'll find a cast that returns to mug, unable to help themselves.
The art of song, the art of Renée Fleming
February 25, 2015 | By Tim Smith
There was something wonderfully reassuring about Renée Fleming's recital Monday night at the Kennedy Center.
To begin with, the soprano, joined by pianist Olga Kern in this Washington Performing Arts presentation, reaffirmed her vocal radiance and uncommon ability to hold an audience in the palm of her hand (or in the elegant folds of her inevitably refined couture -- she and Kern both put on quite a fashion show).
For those whose favorite sport is Find the Flaws in the Diva, I suppose they will have spotted a top note that didn't blossom fully or a brief touch of droopy intonation. What I heard was an artist who, after more than 25 years on the scene, still retains a good deal of the creaminess in her timbre that first caused ears to perk up, an artist still energized by words, an artist who still delivers.
This occasion underlined, above all, the fact Fleming remains anything but a generic soprano (her distinctive portamento alone assures that).
In an astutely chosen program, she also reasserted the value of the art song, a genre that never really gets enough respect, let alone love, these days. It was great to hear an artist of this stature devoting her attention to lieder and Russian song, instead of popular arias, and doing so in a large concert hall with a packed house.
Extra marks for turning the first half of the program over to Schumann's song cycle "Frauenliebe und Leben" ("A Woman's Love and Life"). As Fleming noted in remarks to the audience, the cycle, which she sang early in her career, seems to have fallen out of favor over the decades.
She suggested that part of the problem could be the texts, which reflect a dated view of human relationships. Then again, we make plenty of allowances for unfashionable depictions of women in opera. I suspect it's simply part of the sorry, steady decline in appreciation for lieder.
Schumann was at his most inspired when he fashioned the eight songs that form this cycle, which traces a woman's experiences of falling in love at first sight, having her affection reciprocated, getting married, bearing a child, and facing her husband's unexpected death. It's a great work, and a great opportunity for an artist with imagination and feeling.
(When Barbra Streisand was flirting with classical music way back when, I kept wishing she would investigate this cycle. She could have interpreted the heck out of it.)
Fleming burrowed into the material with a keen appreciation for the eloquent curves of the melodic lines and the evocative power of the poetry.
The soprano's extra warmth of tone in the fourth song (the 19th-century equivalent of "Put a Ring on It"); her exquisite nuances of phrasing in the time-suspending, closing verse of "Susser Freund"; and her visceral way of communicating the weight of the loss in the final piece -- these were among the highlights of this sensitive performance.
I was a little less impressed with Kern's playing, which struck me as perfectly accurate, but not always multidimensional. The piano postlude, which, in recalling the cycle's opening material, provides a welcome glimmer of hope and renewal, sounded especially plain.
The pianist was in her element, though, when attention shifted to Rachmaninoff, whose songs are as challenging and rewarding for an accompanist as they are for a singer. With technical elan and considerable range of color, Kern provided a firm foundation for Fleming's often quite rapturous vocalism.
The soprano's darkly beautiful low register emerged at several points to compelling effect, and her long-breathed phrasing proved admirable (notably in "Twilight" and "A Dream"). There seemed to be, understandably, just a little more drive and determination from Fleming when, in "Spring Waters," she reached the line "Spring is coming."
It wasn't a bad idea to give Kern a solo amid this portion of the recital -- Rachmaninoff's own gorgeous transcription of his song "Lilacs" -- and the pianist delivered it nicely. But I wish the set-up hadn't look so awkward, with Fleming walking off stage beforehand.
The remainder of the (printed) program was devoted to Strauss -- "My desert island composer," Fleming called him. Surely if this soprano was born to sing the music of one composer above all, it's Strauss.
She chose an interesting sample of his lieder that balanced well-known with less often encountered, and gave to each a great deal of vocal velvet and expressive intensity. This was particularly true in "Ruhe, meine Seele" and "Liebeshymnus," which heated up the hall considerably.
The fully operatic "Die heiligen drei Konige aus Morgenland" found Fleming in rapturous form. Kern, in the unenviable position of duplicating at the keyboard what Strauss did so much more spectacularly in his orchestrated version of this song, played the majestic coda with admirable breadth.
"I'm warmed up now," Fleming said before launching into encores, which included more Strauss -- a soaring "Cacilie" -- and Gershwin's "Summertime." The soprano seemed to get the entire hall, ushers and all, to chime in perfectly for a chorus of "I Could Have Danced All Night," the kind of disarming experience Fleming can deliver so effortlessly.
There was also an account of "O mio babbino caro" so melting that it became much easier to face the nagging cold outside afterward.
Susan Stroman’s 'The Merry Widow' dances the Met into the new year
Photo: KEN HOWARD/METROPOLITAN OPERA
New production premiere of Metropolitan Opera’s “The Merry Widow”
January 2, 2015 | By Richard Carter
Rating: five stars
Wednesday, Dec. 31, 2014, the Metropolitan Opera ushered in the new year with an effervescent new production of Franz Lehár’s frothy operetta “The Merry Widow,” in every way the inspired vision of Director and Choreographer Susan Stroman, a five-time Tony award winner, in her highly anticipated Met debut. With sets by Julian Crouch and costumes by William Ivey Long, the creative team brought late nineteenth-century Paris to the footlights. A real eye-pleaser with a solid cast of singers and actors that made suspending belief a most willing surrender.
Soprano superstar Renée Fleming interpreted the title role, Hanna Glawari, for the first time anywhere. In her mid-fifties and already transitioning into artistic life after her singing career, the role fits her tailor made. Having seen her exclusively in semi-heroic and tragic operas, she was a pleasant surprise in romantic comedy, at once agile and elegant and not a bad dancer. The creamy voice is still lithe, in full bloom, with a striking trill perfectly intact. It is obvious the Act II “Vilja Song” is a personal favorite, which she dispatched beautifully.
Opposite her as Count Danilo Danilovitch, an old flame who does everything to avoid admitting rekindled feelings for the magnificently monied Hanna lest he appear self-seeking, baritone Nathan Gunn cut a dashing figure and sang with easy richness of timbre, almost a tenor in the upper range. He moved well, whether dancing or cavorting. He was a standout in the Act II male septet, and he blended well in ensembles with all cast members throughout the work.
In her Met debut, oft-Tony-nominated Kelli O’Hara made a splash in a venue that is three to four times the size of the Broadway theaters where she has built quite a distinguished career. With acting chops, a full operatic voice and the clearest diction, her lovely sounds easily reached the loftiest heights, both in tessitura and in aiming for the rafters. She credibly portrayed Valencienne’s Act III tipsiness without exaggerating and is sufficiently accomplished as a dancer to dance clumsily with the grisettes and make it look genuine. She received hearty applause during the final-act curtain calls.
Baroness Valencienne in this production is more knowing than the ingénue that usually inhabits the role of the conflicted new “respectable wife” of Baron Mirko Zeta; she does no running from former lover Camille de Rosillon, sung by sweet-voiced tenor Alek Shrader, and in fact simultaneously pushes him toward Hanna while clutching him, not wanting to let go. The tenor defended himself well in all his sumptuous melodies but had the habit of covering his voice in its highest reaches instead of taking a more full-throated approach. His colleagues completely drowned him in the exquisite Act II quintet.
As Baron Zeta, Valencienne’s unsuspecting husband and ineffective Pontevedrin ambassador in Paris, veteran British baritone Sir Thomas Allen, the only non-American among the five principals, brought elegance, honeyed tone and excellent comic timing to a role that begs for an aria or at least a duet.
Actor Carlson Elrod deserves special mention for his ditsy portrayal of Njegus, Count Danilo’s bumbling assistant, in this production a spoken role. His hilarious histrionics and impeccable comedic timing made one wish for an expanded role. The now defunct New York City Opera years ago staged a colorful production of this work in which Njegus had an hysterical aria complete with fleet footwork and pratfalls. Seeing Carlson Elrod make much of a relatively small role begs the question of what he would do with that (interpolated) aria. Perhaps it wouldn’t much matter what kind of singing voice he has.
British conductor Sir Andrew Davis led the forces of the splendid Metropolitan Opera Orchestra and the unmatched Metropolitan Opera Chorus while indulging and supporting the soloists in consistently stellar performances. Balance problems between stage and pit plagued much of Act I, rendering some singers nearly inaudible, but Maestro Davis happily resolved these for the remainder.
Dance abounds in any production of “The Merry Widow.” Susan Stroman achieved graceful movement from all cast members, whether dancers or “civilians.” In this production, the Act I curtain rises halfway through the overture to reveal numerous couples spinning and swaying to one of the countless waltzes that punctuate the sublime score. We are, after all, at a ball held at the Pontevedrin embassy in Paris where these lovable Balkan expats hope to raise money for their nearly bankrupt imaginary nation.
Act II, set at Hanna’s villa, opens with energetic folk dancing. The dance troupe returns yet again in Act III, set in Chez Maxim, this time to complement the grisettes’ lively cancan. The talented dancers accommodated the various dance styles depicted, giving “The Merry Widow” its special charm. In view of such a substantial balletic contribution, they unjustly go uncredited in the printed program. From their part alone, it is easy to see why Susan Stroman has won five Tony awards.
The Met’s new “Merry Widow” is the cure to all that ails you. It will lift your spirits, calm your anxiety and never fail to entertain. Unless your name is Martin Bernheimer, poor man.
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