Fleming’s recital shows star power and gleaming artistry
Standing on the Boston Symphony Hall stage on Sunday, soprano Renée Fleming confided to the audience that she was afraid she’d be seeing only empty seats, given the inclement weather.
She needn’t have worried. Although the performance, presented by the Celebrity Series of Boston, had its less successful moments, Fleming and pianist Olga Kern more than justified braving the snow for an afternoon of music.
The most uneven part of the performance happened to be its first part, Robert Schumann’s song cycle Frauenliebe und -leben. One of the masterpieces of lieder, the cycle chronicles a woman’s love for her husband, starting from their first meeting, continuing through their courtship and marriage, and ending with his death. Fleming remarked that the cycle had been a favorite among performers in her student days, but had lately slipped from the repertoire due to feelings about the text being darted and sexist. The tender qualities of the music, however, had caught Fleming’s attention, and this was her first foray into the piece.
There were some very fine vocal moments, such as the dramatic, almost guttural quality of tone she brought to the final song, in which the woman mourns her husband’s death. But it was in fact tenderness that was most missing in Fleming’s approach. Moments of vocal affect, such as the gorgeous messa di voce’s in the quietly ecstatic “Susser Freund, du blickest,” were beautiful but felt out of place. Also problematic was Kern’s hesitant accompaniment. The piano is an equal partner, sometimes cradling the voice, sometimes striking the death knells, and Kern seemed to feel too cautious or polite to fully inhabit that role. Perhaps this was something the performers noticed, as the lid, half open for the Schumann, was lifted fully for the rest of the concert.
The rest of the evening soared. A set of Rachmaninoff songs seemed to bring out the best in both Fleming and Kern. The gorgeously melancholy “Ne poy, krasavitsa, pri mne” saw the soprano unfurl her voice to full effect. The years have left few marks on Fleming’s voice. There’s a hint of gravel, but it’s still a gleaming, controlled, full-bodied instrument, with marvelous diction and plenty of big high notes. This was particularly evident in an exhilarating rendition of “Vesenniye vodi,” which Fleming crowned with an interpolated high note that brought the audience to its feet. Fleming showed off her comic chops in the brief “Rechnaya lileya,” and found a tone of tender rapture for “Sumerki” and “Son.” A brief interlude consisting of Kern’s solo, a free and buoyant rendition of Rachmaninoff’s “Beketova” for piano, neatly halved the Rachmaninoff section.
The last third of the program, composed of Strauss lieder, was also very fine, if not as stunning as the Rachmaninoff. Fleming mixed the tender tone she had found in the Rachmaninoff section with just enough weight, underlined by her secure chest voice, for “Ruhe, meine Seele.” That same mix of strength and tenderness, this time alloyed with a tone of innocence, well served the buoyant “Das Bachlein.” The highlight of the Strauss, though, was the vivid “Die heiligen drei Konige aus Morgenland,” which featured a lengthy piano ending that Kern dispatched with orchestral flair; one could almost hear the trumpets in her playing.
Four encores followed. Fleming and Kern began with Strauss’s euphoric wedding-day composition “Cecilia.” The second verse could have used more differentiation in tone, but the sense of rapture was captured, and the ending exhilarated. Gershwin’s “Summertime” followed, and found Fleming displaying her vocal acting as she adopted the vocal mannerisms of Bess.
Fleming asked the crowd to join her on the second verse of the next encore, “I Could Have Danced All Night” from My Fair Lady; afraid to let her down, perhaps, the audience participated a bit too fully. Last was Fleming’s self-proclaimed favorite, Puccini’s “O mio babbino caro.” Halfway through the piece, Fleming threw in a bit of acting, as though reminded that this was indeed an opera excerpt and not just a melody, but she needn’t have bothered: the rendition, sung at a luxurious tempo with redolent phrasing and gorgeous tone, reminded everyone just why Fleming is still one of the premiere sopranos in the world.
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