Renée Fleming owns the stage in superb BSO ‘Rosenkavalier’
By Zoë Madonna, September 30, 2016
“Der Rosenkavalier” is the third Richard Strauss opera the Boston Symphony has mounted in concert in as many years, past endeavors being “Salome” in 2014 and last autumn’s tour de force “Elektra.”
Despite the fact that the operas share a composer, “Rosenkavalier” could not be more different from the previous two. While “Salome” and “Elektra” tell dark, ancient tales of madness and death in spiky proto-Modernist chromaticism, the score of “Rosenkavalier” is spun from sweet, pillowy tonality beginning to end, replete with triple-time homages to the other famous Strauss. “Salome” and “Elektra” are also notably compact in duration and ensemble, while Thursday’s “Rosenkavalier” at Symphony Hall lasted four hours and 20 minutes, with three acts and two intermissions. The cast featured no fewer than 25 singers, plus the perpetually excellent Tanglewood Festival Chorus, Andris Nelsons on the podium.
Could the opera work in concert, on a stage seemingly as crowded as the Red Line at rush hour? The answer: An unequivocal “ja, ja.”
Stripped of sets and costumes, concert versions of operas sometimes dispense with attention to theatricals, but this cast more than fulfilled Strauss’s 1910 comment: “I’ll need very good actors . . . ordinary operatic singers won’t do.”
Renée Fleming’s sublime, confident Marschallin owned the stage from the moment she stepped on it. She draped herself on a chaise longue for the saucy Prelude, coquettishly adjusting her fuschia-edged wrap over her strapless gown and tossing an edge at Susan Graham’s Octavian. Her gentle, graceful phrases in the nostalgic soliloquy near the end of Act 1 curled and curved like conch shells, and her final farewell to Octavian was subtly devastating.
Fleming owned the stage, but she seemed happy to let Franz Hawlata’s Baron Ochs borrow the scenery to chew. Played crude and lewd, the bloviating womanizer crowed in a rich plum-brandy bass about his financially fortuitous engagement to Sophie while chasing after every other woman who caught his eye. Singing and pelvic-thrusting along to a lush, galumphing waltz at the end of Act 2, he descended to a comically flatulent low note and collapsed into drunken slumber in a chair.
Graham was in top form as both the Marschallin’s dashing young paramour, Octavian (a trouser role), and in disguise as the chambermaid “Mariandel,” whom she played as a splashy Shakespearean rustic, an intentional mewling note in her countrified German. Vocally, her Octavian channeled a young adult woman more than a teenage boy, a mellow, full-bodied maturity in her timbre. This is likely Graham and Fleming’s final “Rosenkavalier” together, according to a BSO spokeswoman, and one could not have asked for a better note to leave on. Erin Morley’s Sophie was a streetwise soubrette, her glimmering coloratura melding euphorically with Graham’s in the young lovers’ many duets. She delivered the libretto’s most dated lines — “I must have a husband before I can be anything” — with a knowing wink in her voice.
Irmgard Vilsmaier, a veteran Brunnhilde, declaimed every one of the nurse Marianne’s dramatic pronouncements with the awesome weight of a Wagnerian “Hojotoho,” and Alan Opie was a pleasingly high-flown Faninal. Stephen Costello’s buttery Italian Singer will likely be in demand for future productions. Local bass David Cushing is a name to watch out for; his stentorian Police Commissary had few lines, but his sonorous voice, snappy diction, and versatile facial expressions left this listener wishing he had more to do.
Supporting the singers at the helm of the orchestra, Nelsons mostly held down the brake on the volume, but by no means on the passion. (In the most chaotic scenes, such as the inn in Act 3, some soloists were hard to hear.) Principal oboist John Ferrillo and concertmaster Malcolm Lowe served fine, expressive solos, and the round, fluttering triads representing Octavian and Sophie landed light as drops of dew.
For the meeting of the young lovers, an exquisite silver rose was on loan from the Metropolitan Opera’s retired assistant general manager Sarah Billinghurst, putting it back in the spotlight after over 40 years of Octavians delivering it onstage in New York. Truly though, the show-stealing prop was Maestro Nelsons’s spare baton, which Graham snatched off the podium in place of Octavian’s usual rapier to lightly poke the lecherous Baron’s arm. The “sword” may have been smaller, but Hawlata’s wounded bellowing was no less melodramatic, and the audience reaction was even more uproarious for it. Such is the way that this excellent cast took what could have been a limitation and transformed it into comic genius.
Renée Fleming, Barbican, review: 'a proper diva'
February 6, 2016 | By Ivan Hewett, Classical Music Critic
To hear Renée Fleming, possessor of the most sheerly beautiful soprano voice on the planet, is a treat we normally hope for only once in an evening. She arrives, bestows her magic, and departs. On this occasion she bestowed it twice, which was quite a coup for the BBC Symphony Orchestra. Before the interval she sang eight songs by Debussy, in recent orchestral arrangements by the seventysomething British composer Robin Holloway. After it came The Strand Settings, four songs on texts by the late American poet Mark Strand written for Fleming by Swedish composer Anders Hillborg.
These were the centrepieces in a concert which ravished the ears constantly, and at times stirred deeper feelings too. It was book-ended by two pieces of French orchestral gorgeousness, the first of which, Debussy’s evocation of a faun’s erotic dreams, L’Après-midi d’un Faun, is clearly a favourite of conductor Sakari Oramo. In the past he’s made the faun seem too post-coitally languorous for my taste, but on this occasion languor was offset by a bracing urgency. Oramo drew a similarly sharp contrast in the closing piece, the 2nd Suite from Ravel’s Daphnis & Chloe. It was daringly slow for the opening sunrise (the flutes twittering away in a dawn chorus), and correspondingly delirious in the final dance.
This proved what good shape the BBC SO is in right now, and they certainly played royally for Renée Fleming. Proper diva that she is, she appeared in two frocks: a light green one for the nature imagery and delicate shifting colours of the Debussy songs, and a deep indigo gown for the nocturnal stillness of The Strand songs (Fleming leaves nothing to chance). The difference in look was matched by the difference in vocal tone. Debussy’s songs touched on moods of melancholy or regret or rapture but never settled in them for long, and Fleming’s tone was similarly urgent and fleeting - an effect magnified by Holloway’s deft and suggestive orchestral colours and newly composed transitions.
Hillborg’s songs by contrast unfolded in huge unhurried paragraphs, Fleming trailing her phrases of memory and longing across the music’s static chords, like the stars against the night sky so beautifully evoked in the poems. Starry nights, huge "cosmic" chords, feelings of regret - how easily these elements could have congealed into something sentimental and facile. It’s a tribute to Fleming’s artistry, and Hillborg’s subtlety, that they never did.
Cleveland Orchestra gala with soprano Renee Fleming proves artistic, financial success
October 5, 2015 | By Mark Satola
CLEVELAND, Ohio -- Severance Hall played host to a lot of sartorial finery at Saturday night's black tie gala to raise money for the Cleveland Orchestra's music education and community outreach initiatives.
Eleven-hundred people dressed to the nines filled the auditorium to hear a short concert by the near-legendary soprano Renée Fleming in a program of mostly Viennese confections, with a little more substance by way of Richard Strauss's last opera, "Capriccio."
Music director Franz Welser-Möst was on the podium for the event, which proceeded without intermission and, including encores, lasted a little over an hour and a half.
The curtain went up to the overture from Wagner's only comedy, "Die Meistersinger," which Welser-Möst led at an unusually brisk pace that emphasized the music's dramatic impact but glossed over some of the textural delights that Wagner provided in his score.
The orchestra responded to Welser-Möst's fast tempo with dynamic and well-focused playing, and the whole business was over in what seemed like less than ten minutes, clearing the way for Fleming's arrival onstage in a peacock-blue off-the-shoulder gown.
The "Moonlight" orchestral interlude and Madeleine's concluding monologue from Strauss's "Capriccio" was an unusual choice for Fleming's first appearance, given that the interlude, though musically rich, left her onstage without much to do, though it was worth the wait when she finally gave voice to Madeleine's hall-of-mirrors dilemma.
Fleming's voice is a fine marvel, maintaining its creamy tone throughout her entire range, though at the lower end, her words were a little submerged in the shifting ocean of Strauss's orchestration. She conveyed Madeleine's bittersweet predicament with as much dramatic flair as is possible in a concert setting, and the orchestra, under Welser-Möst's sure hand, provided a rich nocturnal backdrop for this autumnal masterpiece.
While Fleming was backstage for a costume change, Welser-Möst led the orchestra in one of Johann Strauss Jr.'s more obscure waltzes, "From the Mountains." Written for one of the Strauss orchestra's countless tours — this one to Russia in 1864 — the waltz is a curious affair, with peculiarities of orchestration that would not remain over the years in Strauss's bag of tricks, such as a melody for high flute and bassoon that sounded more like Mahler than the Waltz King.
On her return to the stage, Fleming wore a close-fitting red gown with a gold scarf across her shoulders, which elicited exclamations from the audience. The second part of the program was devoted to items from Vienna's so-called Silver Age, with semi-popular songs by Franz Lehár, Rudolf Sieczynski and Johann Strauss Jr. by way of Viennese wunderkind Korngold.
Korngold's "Waltzes from Vienna" suite was arranged from his score for a 1930s operetta (filmed in 1934, curiously, by Alfred Hitchcock), and the song "I Often Wonder" set the tone for the subsequent numbers, including Sieczynski's "Vienna, City of My Dreams," "Why Have You Kissed Me Awake?" from Lehár's Friederike, and the oft-sung "Vilja Song" from Lehár's "The Merry Widow."
The lyric content of these songs is limited to the agonies of love and the delights of Vienna, but Fleming lifted them above their treacly sentiments with an extra measure of artistry and commitment.
Of course there were encores. "I'm in Love with Vienna," from the Dmitri Tiomkin score for "The Great Waltz" (1938) continued the whipped-cream tributes to Austria's capital. Real artistry made a final appearance in the second encore, a beautifully hushed rendition of Richard Strauss's "Morgen," which seemed to be preserved in crystal.
The thunderous ovations attested to the evening's musical success, but just as importantly, the benefit concert was a financial success as well, reaping $1.2 million for the orchestra's education and outreach projects.
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