Review: Renée Fleming delivers a generous, honest, cosmopolitan recital

Renée Fleming was in Southam Hall on Tuesday night.

About 20 years ago, I had a long phone conversation with Renée Fleming. It wasn’t about music, or singing, or art. It was about visa requirements for a Canadian au pair she was thinking of hiring to help take care of her two little girls. (I had recently moved to New York on a temporary work permit and she wanted to hear about my experience; I forget who put us in touch).  

She was genuine, warm, informal and appreciative of even my dubious advice — the definition of Midwestern “niceness.” Although she was already a major opera star, she hadn’t yet become a full-blown American icon, with Super Bowl appearances, acclaimed forays into musical theatre, and official state occasions and awards on her resumé (her performance of Danny Boy at Senator John McCain’s funeral made even the implacable Cindy McCain cry). But Fleming’s essential decency — her legendary work ethic, her unfussy attitude — have remained as constant a part of her persona has her dazzling instrument.

In the past couple of years, Fleming has said adieu to some of her most famous roles — the Marschallin in Rosenkavalier, Rusalka — leading to some confusing, is she/isn’t she reports of her retirement from staged opera (short answer: she isn’t). More recently, she has focused on her Tony-nominated Broadway début as Nettie in Carousel, recording projects, collaborations with new composers and the concert and recital circuit.

On Tuesday, Fleming presented a typically cosmopolitan recital program at Southam Hall. Performing with her longtime friend and collaborator, conductor and pianist Richard Bado, Fleming offered a selection of Schubert lieder, a few Italian arias, an assortment of show tunes, some songs she has recorded for different films and two excerpts from Letters from Georgia, a new song cycle by Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Kevin Puts that Fleming premiered in 2016.

Fleming opened with the famous Aria from Villa-Lobos’ Bachianas Brasileiras No. 5. The 59-year-old singer used it to show off her still-astonishing breath control, silky legato, brilliant colour and that shimmery, dragonfly-wing vibrato that is in itself a miracle of consistency. Only in the very bottom of her register did some hoarseness, and occasionally a weird sort of yodel, creep in.

However, the diva’s signature vocal mannerisms — the powdery gasps and inflections, the oozing, triple-cream portamento, the approximate diction (she inexplicably sings in English with a French accent) have grown increasingly exaggerated. At times I found they distracted from the vocal line, especially in some of the Schubert lieder. An Sylvia was cloyingly kittenish, while Die Forelle relied more on comical theatrics than lyric expresion. Her dramatic, panting Gretchen am Spinnrade was more suited to Gounod’s Marguerite, although there was something thrilling in Fleming’s judicious handling of the high As in the climax, where she backed off just a hair, sacrificing a slice of power for more control. When she sang with discipline, Fleming spun phrases of pure gold, as in Die Jüngling an der Quelle and a stunning Im Abendrot.

Bado’s playing throughout the recital was a master class in collaborative piano. He elevates the singer while allowing all the pianistic details to shine: the rhythmic pulse and delicate counterpoint in the Villa Lobos, the fluttering leaves and hypnotic, ominous spinning wheel in the Schubert.

Fleming is a consummate, generous entertainer. The easy banter with the audience, the shifting in and out of different characters, she has perfected it all. While it couldn’t compare to the diva spectacle of Diana Ross last week, with her acres of purple tulle, there was even a glamorous gown change–asymmetrical bronze-black in the first half, flowy fuchsia in the second. Through it all Fleming seemed relaxed and sincerely happy. You may not always agree with her taste or artistic choices, but there was nothing dishonest about this performance.   

In an evening that placed a priority on showbiz, the Puts presented one of the evening’s purest moments of serious musical enjoyment. The song cycle is built on excerpts from Georgia O’Keefe’s letters. Puts’ composition is gorgeous and painterly–as monumental, severe and deeply coloured as the New Mexico landscapes O’Keefe describes. Here Fleming found subtle ways to bend the vocal line, filling it with desert light and heat, conveying O’Keefe’s ecstatic love of nature and place, devouring sensuality contrasting with monastic asceticism and spirituality.

The two popular chestnuts that followed — The Last Rose of Summer and You’ll never know (just how much I love you)–were adroitly delivered, milked for maximum schmaltz. But they clashed with the Puts, which should have ended the first half.

Fleming’s charming Italian set included some undiscovered gems, like the impossibly flirtatious aria Musette svaria sulla bocca viva from Leoncavallo’s version of La Bohème. Tosti’s Serenata was bright with Neapolitan grace and passion, with Bado creating delicious strummed guitar effects. But the heartbreaking Signore, ascolta from Turandot missed the mark, and Fleming turned the servant girl Liu’s humble, pure-hearted plea into a strident command.

Riding high on her Broadway triumph, it’s not surprising that Fleming chose to end the program with a collection of show tunes, from Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Sound of Music to The Glamorous Life from Sondheim’s A Little Night Music, in which the singer gleefully performed all the parts. Others can debate the minutiae of an operatic voice versus a musical theatre one, but Fleming clearly adores this repertoire and enjoys hamming it up to the hilt.

The singer returned with three encores. Fleming’s exquisite mezza di voce in O Mio Babbino Caro was all the more impressive coming at the end of such a long program. But Summertime felt self-indulgent. The most famous lyric soprano in the world cannot be unaware of the sensitivity surrounding Porgy and Bess, and the arguments about whether non-African-American opera singers should just leave the whole thing alone.

For her final encore, Fleming asked the audience for a show of hands: Danny Boy or Song to the Moon from Dvorak’s Rusalka. The soaring Czech aria won out, and Fleming’s performance — stately, spellbinding, touched with melancholy — built to its rapturous apex, quality of sound married to emotional investment. This is the singing that made Fleming an icon.

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Natasha Gauthier has been covering classical music in Canada and the US for more than 20 years. She was the classical critic at the Ottawa Citizen, and was one of the founding critics of Montreal's HOUR Magazine. She has served on the classical music and dance juries for the Governor General's Performing Arts Awards. You can also read her at her blog, Natasha has a BA in Journalism from Concordia University.