Renée Fleming - Kudos

Fleming soars in magical debut

Cincinnati Enquirer | September 19, 2012

Flashing a big smile, Renée Fleming walked onto Music Hall’s stage in an extravagant black gown to deafening applause. Then, the diva-who-needs-no-introduction introduced her eclectic program with, “I just wanted you to get to know me.”

In her Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra debut on Tuesday, a gala concert to launch the season, Fleming was a charming tour guide through an ambitious and diverse program that had her singing for much of the lengthy evening. It’s doubtful that even the veteran opera lovers in the nearly full house (3,055 attended) were familiar with some selections, which included rarely heard French songs and two arias from Leoncavallo’s “La bohème,” penned a year after Puccini’s opera of the same name. But Fleming offered something for everyone, from signature arias to a set of Rodgers and Hammerstein and Lerner and Loewe.

By the end of the evening, Fleming had won hearts with her ravishing tone and interpretive artistry – not to mention her friendly banter, spectacular gowns (by Douglas Hannant), an audience sing-along and no fewer than three encores.

Picking up a microphone, which she did several times, Fleming praised the “fabulous and historic” Music Hall.

“I’m so excited that I can have a place I can still make a debut at,” noted the 53-year-old singer, who has spent more than two decades on the world’s greatest stages but until Tuesday, never in Cincinnati.

Fleming opened with vocal fireworks in a delightful song by Delibes, “Les filles de Cadix” (The Girls of Cadiz). She was an enchanting storyteller in Henri Duparc’s lovely French song “Phidylé,” setting a serene mood with beauty of line and exquisite attention to every word. Both, she said later, were new to her.

The first showstopper was the “Jewel Song” from Gounod’s “Faust,” which she tackled with sparkling coloratura and effortless high notes, irresistibly evoking Marguerite’s joyous discovery of a chest of jewels.

A scene from Verdi’s tragic “Otello” offered a glimpse of one of her signature roles, Desdemona, which Fleming will revisit next month at the Metropolitan Opera. As the wrongly accused wife of Otello, she navigated a stunning range of emotion, from grief and bewilderment to serenity in the scene that begins “Mia madre aveva una povera ancella.” The simple beauty of her final prayer, “Ave Maria,” was breathtaking, as she ascended to its high conclusion.

Christopher Philpott’s beautifully phrased English horn in the introduction enhanced the moment.

Fleming concluded the first half with Erich Korngold’s waltzing “Frag mich Oft” (I often wonder) and another signature aria, “Song to the Moon” from Dvorak’s opera about a water nymph, “Rusalka,” sung in Czech. (For the latter, Fleming removed her voluminous skirts to reveal her “mermaid dress.”)

There was an audible gasp when she came out after intermission in a hot pink creation. Opening with a set from verismo opera (Italian realism), Fleming performed a lovely song, “Ombra di nube” (Shadow of a cloud) by a little known priest named Licinio Refice and two sweetly sung arias from Leoncavallo’s “La bohème.”

But the highlight was the well-known “Vissi d’arte” from Puccini’s “Tosca,” where the listener could revel in the depth of feeling Fleming brought to the words of another diva, Floria Tosca.

Using a microphone – perhaps to give her voice a rest – she ended on a lighthearted note with the title song from “The Sound of Music,” and a wistfully sung “Hello, Young Lovers” from “The King and I.” Through it all, she seemed to be having fun. Fleming recruited the audience to join her in “I Could Have Danced All Night” (“My Fair Lady”), once commenting “This is a marathon.”

Her encores were “I Feel Pretty,” “Danny Boy” and “O mio babbino caro” from Puccini’s “Gianni Schicchi.”

German conductor Sebastian Lang-Lessing collaborated on the Cincinnati Symphony podium, at first a bit heavy in the French art song, but after that an ideal partner. Between numbers, he led the symphony in rousing opera overtures, Korngold’s Overture to “Captain Blood” and Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Carousel Waltz.” The most rewarding was the Act III Intermezzo from Puccini’s “Manon Lescaut.”

by Janelle Gelfand

LSO/Gergiev/Fleming, Barbican, London

LSO/Gergiev/Fleming, Barbican, London

Financial Times | July 17, 2012

By Richard Fairman

Renée Fleming gave an exquisitely detailed account of ‘Le temps l’horloge’ in the UK premiere of Dutilleux’s song cycle

This concert marked both an end and a beginning. It was the final event in the 50th anniversary season of the City of London Festival and at the same time inaugurated the first Livery Concert, attended by the Lord Mayor of London and marking the support that the City of London’s historic livery companies give to the arts.

Something special was needed for the occasion. In 2009, Renée Fleming gave the premiere of the final, completed version of Le temps l’horloge, which French composer Henri Dutilleux wrote for her, and the highlight of this concert was the work’s first, belated performance in the UK, with Fleming to introduce it.

Dutilleux, now 96, has lost nothing of his exceptional ear for sound and the four songs of this cycle combine his inimitable, very French sound-world with an appreciation for the rapturous lyricism of Fleming’s voice. The poems conjure strange images – a bronze mask rising high over a desert is perhaps the most striking – and Dutilleux has responded with evocative settings. Against the backdrop of his enigmatic orchestration, adorned by an accordion and the old-world tinkling of a harpsichord, Fleming made the poems come alive with detail, hinting at great truths just out of reach. For all its beauty, the work does not give up its secrets easily.

The conductor, Valery Gergiev, resisted the temptation to play up Dutilleux’s glittering orchestra in favour of allowing Fleming almost always to be heard easily. He did the same in Ravel’s Shéhérazade, so she had the luxury of being able to play with words, where most singers are focused on getting their voices over the accompaniment. This was a rather slow, self-indulgent performance (Ravel preferred performers who get a move on) but Fleming’s seductive beauty of sound is difficult to resist in these songs of yearning and temptation.

On either side Gergiev and the London Symphony Orchestra performed not fillers, but major works. Debussy’s La Mer, recorded by them last year, was intermittently sluggish, like the Ravel. Stravinsky’s Petrushka, in its 1911 version, is almost too lavish a piece to work in the Barbican’s congested acoustic, and some of it felt impossibly over-busy, but there was a lot of distinguished solo playing, and plenty of corporate virtuosity.

Fleming Ravishing as Strauss's Arabella

Fleming Ravishing as Strauss's Arabella

Paris Update | June 20, 2012

By Nick Hammond

I blush to admit that every (mercifully rare) time I find myself on a grand staircase during a visit to a stately home, I cannot resist descending the steps while singing the closing music from Richard Strauss’s Arabella (for all would-be staircase singers, I heartily recommend Holkham Hall in Norfolk, England). Now that I’ve gotten that little confession off my chest (or should it be my diaphragm?), you will understand why I was eager to make a special trip from England to Paris to see this new production at the Opéra de la Bastille, with a magnificent cast headed by the great Straussian soprano Renée Fleming in the title role.

Arabella was the final collaboration between Strauss and his librettist Hugo von Hofmannsthal. Having completed the libretto after a particularly fraught creative process, von Hofmannsthal was rocked by the suicide of his son Franz on the night of July 12-13, 1929. Two days later, just as he was preparing to attend Franz’s funeral, von Hofmannsthal collapsed and died from a stroke, aged only 55.

Much of the impetus for writing Arabella had come from a desire to re-create the ambiance and success of one of their earliest collaborations, Der Rosenkavalier, and there are indeed many similarities. Both are set in Vienna, have a trouser role and, if handled incorrectly, can teeter perilously on the edge of sugariness. Both works also have a central male character, an outsider who seems at odds with sophisticated city life; but whereas Baron von Ochs in Der Rosenkavalier is a country bumpkin whose attempts to marry the young female lead are largely farcical, Mandryka in Arabella is a foreigner from Croatia whose honesty contrasts with the corruption of Viennese high society and whose difference appeals to Arabella, the beautiful eldest daughter of the impoverished, gambling-addicted Count Waldner (sung here by Kurt Rydl) and his wife Adelaide (played with gorgeous campery by the legendary mezzo-soprano Doris Soffel). Mandryka’s brusqueness can make him an unsympathetic character, but the finesse of Michael Volle’s singing, especially in the beautiful duet with Arabella in Act II, makes him as endearing as it is possible to be. Julia Kleiter (alternating with Gunia Kühmeier) as Arabella’s younger sister Zdenka, who is obliged by her parents for financial reasons to live as a boy, manages to be convincingly boyish and, when it really matters, all-woman in her final scene with the object of her affection, Matteo (Joseph Kaiser).

After an understated beginning, Renée Fleming looks and sounds ravishing as Arabella, most movingly in her duets with Zdenka and Mandryka, at all times accompanied with great delicacy by conductor Philippe Jordan and the orchestra of the Opéra National de Paris.

The production by Marco Arturo Marelli, who also designed the set, is pleasingly unfussy, with clever use of revolving discs on the stage—the large pieces of luggage circulating on the set in the first act tellingly attest to the precarious financial situation of the family as they are about to be evicted by bailiffs. Marelli is at his most inventive in the ball scene, when Mandryka’s increasing jealousy is represented by several female dancers, all dressed in the same blue gown as Arabella, cavorting with young men in various states of undress.

By the end of this production, such was the affecting performance by Fleming that I was only mildly disappointed when the glorious marble staircase I had imagined in the final scene turned out to be just a few paltry steps. Next time I visit a stately home, I think I better spare the public my strained tones and invite Renée Fleming along instead.

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