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 yearNew
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.
Words or music? Both are glorious in Lyric's 'Capriccio'
Renée Fleming has taken her time bringing one of her most celebrated operatic roles, Countess Madeleine in Richard Strauss' "Capriccio," to the company for which she serves as creative consultant.
But the wait has been worth it.
October 8, 2014 | By John von Rhein
Strauss' 15th and final opera returned to the Lyric Opera repertory after a 20-year absence Monday night at the Civic Opera House, with Fleming, who had not appeared in a fully staged production at Lyric since 2008, heading a superb ensemble, well, superbly.
Add to that a most intelligent production and a veritable master class in Strauss conducting from music director Andrew Davis, and you had a classy contribution indeed to the composer's sesquicentennial.
Strauss called his valedictory opera a "conversation piece" rather than a music drama. "Capriccio" is an opera about opera, or, more specifically, about the glory that is music theater. With a libretto by the composer's colleague, conductor Clemens Krauss, "Capriccio" as an old master's jeu d'esprit built around a musico-literary conceit: What's more important – the words or the music?
Nothing much happens in the course of almost three talky hours (thank goodness for surtitles), but the ravishing invention the 78-year-old composer poured into his score renders the point irrelevant.
The words-vs.-music conflict is symbolized by the rivalry between the poet Olivier (Norwegian baritone Audun Iversen, in a fine Lyric debut) and the composer Flamand (tenor William Burden). Each artist is courting the rich, widowed Countess at her birthday fete. Flamand has written a string sextet for her, Olivier a sonnet. The latter is outraged when his rival sets the sonnet to music and sings it for the countess at the harpsichord.
Clearly flattered by the young men's attentions, the Countess never does decide whose proposal to accept. In the great final monologue that lies at the beating heart of "Capriccio," she realizes she cannot choose one over the other, for to do so would mean losing the other, and the opera the three are hoping to create would come to naught.
John Cox's production, recreated here by Peter McClintock, updates the setting from the 1770s to Paris in the 1920s, making the inherent aesthetic issues feel more contemporary. (Never mind the pointed references to Gluck's latest operas). To decors by the late Mauro Pagano are added Robert Perdziola's elegant costume and interior designs – faded Art-Deco realism, with French doors opening onto a garden ultimately bathed in the moonlight (Duane Schuler is the lighting designer).
Lyric inserts an intermission into the one-act opera, thereby making the show less of an endurance test for the posteriors of its patrons. Well aware that Strauss never intended his intimate opera to be presented in a 3,500-seat theater, Lyric is providing video screens in the balconies for selected performances.
Strauss' sumptuous music suits Fleming's vocal gifts and stage persona particularly well at this stage of her career. The "people's diva" may not command the rich, seemingly limitless float at the top of her range she once had, but the peaches-and-creamy tone and melting phrases that make her today's go-to Strauss soprano remain. As witty and charming as she is beautiful, Fleming brought touching introspection to the final scene, making a poignant exit with some of the most sublime music Strauss ever composed.
The colorful characters that passed through the Countess' salon were a most companionable lot in their own right.
The Count, Madeleine's brother (Bo Skovhus), is a boorish dilettante who prefers military marches to opera and is enamored of the actress Clairon (Anne Sofie Von Otter). The dependable Danish baritone sank his teeth into his hammy pronouncements, while the splendid Swedish mezzo-soprano played Clairon with a flamboyant hauteur to match her over-the-top flapper outfits.
Burden and Iversen matched each other in vocal quality – the American tenor's clear projection was especially good – and both men made sympathetic figures of the Countess' ardent suitors. Peter Rose was announced as suffering from a throat infection, but the British bass soldiered on heroically, making it through the impresario La Roche's impassioned apostrophe to "the noble theater" through sheer force of will.
Juan Jose de Leon and Emily Birsan made funny caricatures of stock Italian singers frantically upstaging each another. The brief exchange between David Govertsen's weary Majordomo and Keith Jameson as the mousey prompter, Monsieur Taupe, was another choice bit of business. Good, too, was the octet of male servants, most of them members of the Ryan Opera Center apprentice program.
"Capriccio" holds a special place in Davis' podium career. It was with this opera that he made his operatic conducting debut in 1973, and it was he who led its Lyric Opera premiere in 1994, six years before he was named music director.
Fully inside the opera's conversational ebb and flow, Davis elicited exceptionally sensitive, refined playing from the Lyric Orchestra, beginning with the sublime sextet that opens the opera and continuing through the touching final pages. Principal horn Jonathan Boen did a fine job of evoking Strauss' musical moonlight.
If "Capriccio" always will be more a connoisseurs' opera than a big crowd-pleaser on the order of "Der Rosenkavalier," Strauss' glorious music makes the opera a rarefied treat eminently deserving of revival whenever the operatic stars are in alignment. They most certainly are in Lyric's loving revival.
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