Renée Fleming lends her voice for MinnOrch concert of reconciliation
Soprano Renee Fleming has been called "the voice" by some, "the beautiful voice" by others. Perhaps you can add to her nicknames, "the human olive branch."
For her appearance with conductor Osmo Vanska and the Minnesota Orchestra at Minneapolis' Orchestra Hall Friday evening felt something like a peace offering to audience members still sore from management's 16-month lockout of the musicians before a contract settlement earlier this year. The welcome mat was out -- or, rather, red carpets at every entrance -- and the champagne and gourmet desserts were on the house for a preseason gala concert. Well, on the house as part of your admission of $100 and up.
But the music that came from the stage felt as if sincerely motivated by a quest for healing. Five of the eight pieces performed were born in the opera house, but the program wasn't just a crowd-pleasing greatest hits package. On the contrary, the concert's most memorable performance was of its freshest piece, "The Strand Settings," a song cycle by Swedish composer Anders Hillborg that's received but one prior performance (a year ago at Carnegie Hall, courtesy of Fleming and the New York Philharmonic). It proved a haunting, ethereal work with a sound world all its own.
And an arresting forum it was for Fleming's clear tone and impeccable control, as she delivered many of the emotionally intimate lyrics (from the poetry of Mark Strand) accompanied by instrumentation just this side of a cappella.
Strings or winds often shimmered subtly beneath her on long held chords, at one point her voice joined only by a percussionist rolling his finger around the rim of a glass.
Those desiring more conventional fare surely found salve in one of opera's most transportingly beautiful arias, "O mio babbino caro" from Giacomo Puccini's "Gianni Scicchi," which Fleming followed with a rarely heard flamenco-flavored gem from Riccardo Zandonai's "Conchita."
But no songs tapped into the event's emotional current as eloquently as two beautifully rendered songs by Leonard Bernstein: "Somewhere" conveyed a world-weary insistence upon clinging to hope after a trauma, while an encore from "1600 Pennsylvania Avenue" was a tender plea to "take care of this house." In introducing it, Fleming made clear that she wasn't referring to the renovated Orchestra Hall, but to "taking care of this wonderful orchestra." And that's something to which the capacity crowd could raise a toast at the post-concert gathering in the lobby, where the Grammy the orchestra won last January was at last publicly presented.
Renée Fleming Makes Her Acting Debut in ‘Living on Love’
An opera diva on terra incognita
For me, summer officially arrives when I follow the sandals, Polos and Liberty blouses to the rolling green foothills of the Berkshires and file through the doors of the Williamstown Theatre Festival. The 60th season of the incomparable Tony Award-winning cultural institution that has justifiably become the finest summer-long celebration of theatre arts in America is now in full swing on the manicured lawns of Williams College in Western Massachusetts. As always, it’s an event with a feature attraction you can’t and won’t see anywhere else, and this year that “something special” is something very special indeed—the acting debut of legendary soprano Renée Fleming! Without further ado, let it be said immediately—from the show-stopping applause when she enters to the standing ovation of “Bravas!” she gets in one of the funniest curtain calls I’ve ever seen, she is marvelous.
The play is Living on Love, a farce by Garson Kanin refurbished by playwright Joe DiPietro and hilariously directed by Kathleen Marshall, the two collaborators responsible for the long-running Broadway musical Nice Work if You Can Get It. Set in the Technicolor movie world of 1957, it’s a perfect vehicle for the world-renowned opera diva because she plays—what else?—a world-renowned opera diva named Raquel De Angelis who is over the top and drunk on her own fame.
The only person in the life of Raquel with a stormier temperament, a bigger ego and a more exaggerated sense of flamboyant self-importance is her husband, Italian conductor Vito De Angelis, played with a mop of bouncing white hair, waving hands and rolling Italian vowels by Douglas Sills (The Scarlet Pimpernel). The diva, draped in furs and gorgeous ’50s fashions designed by costumer Michael Krass, returns from a world tour to her fashionable Manhattan penthouse to find the maestro working with a boyish biographer named Robert (Justin Long), who has been hired to ghost-write his as-told-to autobiography. Frustrated and insecure, the writer has spent months on the project and is only on Page 2. Raquel extends a buffed fingernail and says, insincerely, “Do tell me about yourself—but not too much!” Flirting with the shy, impressionable young Robert to make her husband jealous, the diva removes his shirt, rubs his skinny chest with olive oil and stages a phony seduction for her husband to see.
Denounced for being discovered “in the arms of a eunuch,” she decides to hire the boy for her own life story while her husband replaces him with a pretty junior editor from Little, Brown named Iris (Anna Chlumsky). Matching the diva’s fear of aging that might render her voice unexceptional with the maestro’s talent for seducing younger conquests, the two battling star personalities compete for attention while the two writers compare notes, discover their subjects have been lying about everything since childhood, and fall for each other. Robert has no flair for romance, but Iris finds even his flaws irresistible (“I can’t tell you how refreshing it is to meet a man with no self-confidence!”) and in the end, the hysterical husband and wife are left alone, without their toys, to re-discover the love they long for in each other. It’s period fluff that borders on the cusp of door-slamming clichés, but artfully polished to hurricane velocity in a production of perfection that keeps the laughter loud and constant.
The centerpiece is Ms. Fleming, and any concern about her acting ability is quickly and permanently exorcised by her own demand for perfection, laced with a sense of humor that is nothing less than captivating. I had no trepidation about her as an actress. That’s what she’s been doing in 54 starring roles in nine languages during an illustrious opera career that has spanned several decades. But who knew she was so funny? Grimacing when anyone mentions “Tebaldi” and making little shrieking noises at the name “Callas,” she sends up opera with a delicious flourish, making unctuous faces and striking outrageous poses like Jean Hagen in Singin’ in the Rain. Performing duets with her own recordings, she doesn’t deny the audience the thrill of that glorious voice, and she ends the show with an arrangement of Irving Berlin’s “Always” that stops the heart. But throughout there’s the rib-tickling nudge of how to poke fun at the serious side of opera. When Ms. Fleming sings Medea dressed like Carmen, it has to be seen to be believed. In a more serious moment, she even has one great speech about the importance of opera that has the impact of a confessional. Mr. Sills is a model of arrogant pomposity in Turnbull & Asser dressing gowns, and there’s an extra benefit to be had in the comic performances of Blake Hammond and Scott Robertson as servants who do everything in unison, from finishing each other’s sentences to balancing tea trays while singing arias in perfect pitch.
One of the abiding truths in Williamstown is that there is no time to yawn. Living on Love will be followed by Sam Shepard’s Fool For Love with Sam Rockwell, and a new production of the Terence McNally-John Kander-Fred Ebb musical version of The Visit, starring Chita Rivera and Roger Rees. Are you getting the message? Is it clear why the Williamstown Theatre Festival is no longer just a summer happening for tourists, but a required destination circled on the maps of the cultured and wise? In the meantime, through July 26, there is Living on Love, a silly play served with perfection, a diner menu prepared with the flourish of a four-star chef. Think Spam flambé, and pray that it gets to Broadway.
Theatrical victory belongs to Blanche in 'Streetcar' opera
Photo Anne Cusack/Los Angeles Times
One of the great interests in any revival of the Tennessee Williams classic “A Streetcar Named Desire” is seeing how a production will negotiate the balance of theatrical power between Blanche DuBois and Stanley Kowalski.
There’s no question where things stand in the L.A. Opera presentation of André Previn’s “A Streetcar Named Desire,” which has its final performance at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion on Saturday. Renée Fleming’s magnificent Blanche dominates the stage in every scene that she’s in. The tragedy belongs to her character -- and it’s personal, achingly so.
Fleming is quite simply the best Blanche I’ve seen since Elizabeth Marvel brutally assayed the role in Ivo van Hove’s brilliant deconstruction at New York Theater Workshop in 1999.
Some revivals of “Streetcar” accentuate the social context, turning the play into a commentary on modernity’s final erasure of the antebellum South. Others focus on the sexual dynamics, the collision of carnality and flirty repression, male aggression and female wiles.
In Williams' drama, two titanic characters compete for the soul of a third, Stella, Stanley’s pregnant wife and Blanche’s placating sister. Because the combatant roles are so large and dependent to such a great extent on the stature of the actors inhabiting them, the play is ever-shifting in performance.
When Elia Kazan cast Marlon Brando as Stanley in the original Broadway production, he initially feared that the sheer charismatic force of Brando’s acting had tilted the play off its axis. During the New Haven tryout for the Broadway run, Kazan wondered if he had made a mistake in casting this young scene-stealer: “The audiences adored Brando. When he derided Blanche, they responded with approving laughter. Was the play becoming the Marlon Brando Show?”
Jessica Tandy, who played Blanche opposite Brando’s Stanley, grew in power as the play wended its way to New York. Kazan wound up casting Vivien Leigh in the movie version, but his stage experience with “Streetcar” led him to the following insight: “In the end, the play was the event, not the cast, not the director. The play carried us all. In the years to come this masterful work, written out of Tennessee’s most personal experience, asking no favors, no pity, no special allegiance, always moved its audience. There was no way to spoil ‘Streetcar.’”
This opera adaptation -- with a libretto by Philip Littell closely following Williams’ play and Previn’s score seeking always to honor the lyricism of the drama, not overwhelm it -- centers on Blanche’s experience. Her hallucinatory flashbacks of her ill-fated marriage seem to emerge as much from the production as from her mind, so closely are the two expressionistically bound up with each other.
Ryan McKinny’s Stanley has a masculine beauty that is attention-grabbing in its own right. Director Brad Dalton capitalizes on this asset, making sure McKinny’s washboard abs are frequently in view and surrounding Stanley with poker-bodies of similar blue-collar sex appeal.
But both the music and drama are channeled in one direction. The pathos is all Blanche’s, the villainy all Stanley’s, and not even Stacey Tappan’s wonderfully earthy Stella can fool herself into thinking otherwise. The compromises Stella makes, the delusions she goes along with leave her rattled at the end. There is no whitewashing of the reality that Blanche has been raped and is now being dragged to a psychiatric hospital because for life to continue at the Kowalskis this troublemaker must be disposed of
This may sound schematic, but Fleming manifests an interior complexity in her singing and her acting that ensures no drop off in dramatic magnitude. She is that rare opera star whose expressive vocal potential is nearly matched by a gestural eloquence. If this was “The Renée Fleming Show,” it was also a reminder of where the cathartic source of Williams’ drama lies.
The final image of Blanche in white beside a young man recalled her tragic wedding, the innocence that was destroyed and the genteel hope that has now been crushed for good.
However incomplete the interpretation, it was the most moving rendering of Williams' masterpiece since Van Hove's harrowing anti-realistic staging with the aptly named Marvel dominating her production with the same fearless emotional command as the equally marvelous Fleming.
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