Renée Fleming - Kudos

Delightful NSO ‘Rosenkavalier’ features Fleming, Montsalvo and newcomer Houtzeel

The Washington Post

March 9, 2014 | By Anne Midgette

This month, the National Symphony Orchestra is celebrating the 150th anniversary of Richard Strauss’s birth with two programs almost entirely devoted not to symphonic music, but opera. The first was a one-off performance of the composer’s most beloved opera, “Der Rosenkavalier,” starring Renée Fleming, at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall on Saturday night.

We love to love “Der Rosenkavalier.” It’s an opera about nostalgia: a 20th-century meditation on loving and growing old and letting go, packaged in a glittering 18th-century wrapping shining with satin and powdered wigs and the glint of chandeliers. And it’s redolent of many of the things we love about opera: its outsized beauty and glamour and a whiff of anachronism and swaths of luxuriously beautiful music. It appeals to our best selves — our eager youth, our generous middle age — and balances on the line between profundity and the near-maudlin that Strauss walked so masterfully in so many of his works.

On Saturday, it brought out the best selves of many of the performers, starting with Fleming, who as the Marschallin (a married woman in her 30s having an affair with a 17-year-old boy) sang with honesty, clarity, a beautiful silvery tone and an innate dignity. She put the focus on the words and the character rather than on how she was bringing them across.

Add to this two dynamite last-minute substitutions and you had a pretty delightful night at the opera. Stephanie Houtzeel, in a stunning, warm, empathetic, coltish, vivid and, one hopes, career-boosting performance, plays the title character, Octavian. Mario Chang, is assured (if a little tight in the tiptop notes) in the fiendishly difficult, blink-and-you’ll-miss-it part of the Italian Tenor, who serenades the Marschallin in her morning room.

There are drawbacks to the concert format, particularly in an opera with an orchestra this big. At first, it was hard to hear everybody over the dozens of instruments on stage, usually safely distanced in the orchestra pit. The proceedings got off to a slightly shaky start with an overture that sounded like a lot of people playing at the same time but not necessarily together.

But the ear adjusted, and the players made it work, as Christoph Eschenbach interacted with the singers and did his best to respond to them. Stephen Pickover created a semi-staging in which “semi” seemed to mean that some of the characters were in costume and some weren’t but that offered enough visible activity to create the impression of an actual production. And having the text center stage, in supertitles over the orchestra’s head, gave everyone the time and space to focus on the librettist Hugo von Hofmannsthal’s words, in the mouth of the Marschallin, about how it feels to realize that you are getting older.

The sense of opulence was certainly reflected in the casting, which drew on an international pool of talent. Fleming is one of today’s leading Strauss singers. Franz Hawlata, the blustering bass well cast as the Marschallin’s blustering cousin Baron Ochs, has been singing around the world for years. Even the smaller parts were cast with strong voices: Irmgard Vilsmaier as the duenna Marianne, Catherine Martin as Annina, Adrian Eröd as Faninal, and Soloman Howard in two small roles as the notary and the policeman. It will be sad for Washington when Howard moves on from the Domingo-Cafritz program at the Washington National Opera and is no longer available to bring such a strong profile and voice to minor roles. I never paid particular attention to the policeman before, but I did on Saturday night.

But, of course, the opera rises and falls with its three female leads: the Marschallin, Octavian and the young Sophie, whom Ochs plans to marry but who falls in love with Octavian instead. And all three women, on Saturday, were admirable, including the Sophie of Marisol Montalvo, who acted convincingly as a slightly petulant, slightly spoiled 15-year-old and sang with such crystalline, delicate high notes in the key scene when Octavian presents her with a silver rose as a token of her engagement to Ochs that I was prepared to forgive her anything.

The figurative rose of the night went to Houtzeel, who last sang in the Concert Hall in Opera Lafayette’s “Armide” in 2010 and who has since sung Octavian and other roles at the Vienna State Opera. She was completely convincing in the part, carrying off the wooing of two other women in concert dress without the slightest vestige of awkwardness and more than holding her own with Fleming with her easy-sounding vocal warmth. But Fleming deserved a rose of her own for her lovely, moving performance. And like all good “Rosenkavaliers,” this was one that audiences here could start to wax nostalgic about almost as soon as it was over.

Ruminating on Love and Desire

Ruminating on Love and Desire

Renée Fleming’s Perspectives Residency at Carnegie Hall

New York Times

April 28, 2013 | By Anthony Tommasini

Whenever the New York Philharmonic takes a break from Lincoln Center to play at Carnegie Hall there is usually a special program suited to the occasion. So it was on Friday night for a concert conducted by Alan Gilbert.

The program, which opened with Respighi’s “Fountains of Rome” and ended with Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition” (in Ravel’s familiar orchestration), featured the premiere of an impressive piece by the Swedish composer Anders Hillborg written for the soprano Renée Fleming, who is completing her Perspectives series at Carnegie Hall this season. The idea of commissioning Mr. Hillborg arose in Sweden during the summer of 2008, when Ms. Fleming performed a program of opera arias with Mr. Gilbert and the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra. Though five years from the conception to the premiere of a piece may seem like a long gestation period, it is not atypical in classical music.

“The Strand Settings,” a 24-minute song cycle on texts by the distinguished Canadian-born poet Mark Strand, was worth waiting for. At once atmospheric, elegiac and unsettling, the work was crafted with Ms. Fleming’s creamy voice in mind, and she sang beautifully.

Mr. Hillborg, 58, has had a diverse life in music. In his youth he played in rock bands while singing in choirs. At the conservatory in Stockholm he studied with formidable modernist composers but also immersed himself in experimental electronic music. In his best pieces these myriad influences are deftly blended into a distinctive voice.

Taken together, the four Strand poems selected for this cycle make a rumination on love and desire in its mysterious and acutely real dimensions. In the first, “The Black Sea,” the narrator climbs to the roof of a house to gaze at the sea during a “whispering night,” waiting for something, a sign, or someone. It is not clear.

Mr. Hillborg sets the words in a quasi-recitative style, though with fleeting lyrical phrases and bursts of agitation. The orchestra at first heaves with thick, subdued chords but soon settles into a shimmering, pungent sustained harmony. That shifting sonority, though transfixing, seems static. But listen closely and you hear inner voices colliding and astringent textures stacked thick with notes.

The next three poems are taken from Mr. Strand’s “Dark Harbor” series. “Dark Harbor XX” seems the lonely thoughts of someone experiencing a sensual kiss, or longing for one. The song continues the ruminative yet quietly dangerous mood already established. The final line is a question: “Is it you or the long compassionate wind/That whispers in my ear: alas, alas?” As the orchestra lingers on a tremulous harmony we hear penetrating soft, high tones from wineglass rims being rubbed with water.

In “Dark Harbor XXXV” the orchestra finally breaks loose into rising riffs and overlapping lines to convey the imagery of kisses “blown out of heaven,/Melting the moment they land.” In one surprisingly jazzy episode, the music breaks incongruously into what sounds like the fragment of a jaunty tune. It could be the “Anthem of Dark Harbor.”

During stretches of the final song, “Dark Harbor XI,” the vocal lines took Ms. Fleming from chesty low-voiced phrases into soaring highs, which she delivered with sensual sound and wistful resignation. This organic song cycle may seem accessible on the surface. But the music keeps its secrets to itself and makes you want to hear it again to figure out more. The ovation lasted five minutes, which does not happen often with new works.

Mr. Gilbert conducted a sumptuous and refreshingly incisive account of Respighi’s colorful “Fountains of Rome,” composed in 1915-16. The performance of “Pictures at an Exhibition” was majestic, crackling and full of character. The orchestra sounded plush and glittering in Carnegie Hall. Back in the late 1950s the Philharmonic had the option of buying Carnegie Hall, which was threatened with demolition. Instead it moved to Lincoln Center. Ah, hindsight.

Second City Comedy's Opera “Guide” Wows the Crowd

Second City Comedy's Opera “Guide” Wows the Crowd

January 8, 2013 | By Wynne Delacoma              photo: Todd Rosenberg 

CHICAGO—Anthony Freud, general director of Lyric Opera of Chicago, got his wish Saturday night.

Lyric had teamed up for an unprecedented, one-night-only collaboration with The Second City, Chicago’s fabled comedy troupe, in a show titled The Second City Guide to the Opera. In a program note written for the crisply paced, sharply funny collection of skits, songs, and video presented at the Civic Opera House, Freud wrote, “I hope you’ll laugh your heads off.” Judging from the waves of guffaws and exuberant applause that washed over the two-hour show, the sold-out audience was more than happy to oblige.

Renée Fleming, Lyric’s creative consultant, and actor Patrick Stewart served as hosts and participated in some of the skits. The evening was Fleming’s brainchild, concocted after she dropped into Second City’s cabaret space during a visit to Chicago last year....

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