Renée Fleming

I have been a fan of Renée Fleming ever since I attended her New York Solo Recital début at Alice Tully Hall, several years ago. A friend of mine at the time, Helen Yorke, accompanied her and suggested I might enjoy the recital. Subsequently, I flew to Dallas to hear them perform an art song recital at a Van-Cliburn-sponsored series in Fort Worth. After that, I made every effort to attend as many of her public appearances as I could, either at the Metropolitan Opera House or in recitals accompanied by Helen Yorke. I felt that Fleming and Yorke achieved both a depth and breadth of partnership that the singer could not reproduce with any other accompanist. I first realized this when I purchased Fleming’s “Schubert Album” and heard her sing some of the same songs accompanied by Yorke at their Tanglewood recital. It was verified for me at Fleming’s “American Composer Recital” in Tully Hall, May, 1999, where most of the accompanists were the composers themselves. Despite that, there was no magic like that created by the partnership of Fleming and Yorke. But, after about ten years of living in New York, Helen returned to England to pursue her career there. Only time will tell whether she will resume a partnership with Fleming, or even if we hear of this highly talented soloist/accompanist/coach.

But I have gone somewhat off my track. The purpose of this article is to discuss Renée Fleming’s latest opera recital CD. Unlike her other albums, the title of this one is merely her name. Accompanied by the London Philharmonic, conducted by Sir Charles Mackerras, Fleming sings a collection of arias from operas she either no longer sings, has not sung, or has no plans to sing in an opera house. She does include two selections from Massenet’s Manon, a role for which she has become deservedly famous, and Maria’s aria from Verdi’s Simon Boccanegra, which I believe she sang in London about five or six years ago.

Simply based on this album, I would have to say that Fleming’s is one of the lushest, most beautiful voices before the public today. She also has a beautiful trill, exhibits a breathtaking technical expertise, and performs a stunning messa di voce in some of her arias.

Here is what she sings:
Puccini:  "O mio babbino caro" (Gianni Schicchi), "Un bel di vedremo" (Madama Butterfly), "Quando me n’vo" (La Bohème), "Signore, ascolta!" (Turandot);
Leoncavallo:  "Qual fiamma! … Stridono lassù" (Pagliacci);
Cilea:  "Ecco:  respiro appena … Io son l’umile ancella" (Andrea Lecouvreur);
Catalani:  "Ebben? … Ne andrò lontano" (La Wally);
Massenet:  "Je suis encor tout étourdie," "Allons! Il le faut! … Adieu, notre petite table" (Manon);
Bizet:  "C’est des contrebandiers … Je dis que rien ne m’épouvante" (Carmen);
Gounod:  "Ah! Je veux vivre" (Roméo et Juliette);
Verdi:  "Come in quest’ora bruna" (Simon Boccanegra), "Merci, jeunes amies" (Les Vêspres Siciliennes);
Bellini:  "Casta diva" (Norma).

Unfortunately, despite the variety of composers, operas, and dramatic situations, ultimately, I was left bored by this album. “Why is that?” I ask myself. While I generally agree with most of the comments made by Albert Innaurato in his adulatory essay accompanying the album, there is something I just do not hear. My first hint of it was a thought that entered my mind the first time I listened to the album. During Micaëla’s air I asked myself: “Why does Bizet sound so much like Richard Strauss? I’ve never heard that similarity with any other singer.”

I listened to the album again and again and gradually realized that what I was missing was the kind of sincerity and drama I heard in interpretations by the likes of Callas, De los Angeles, Scotto, Albanese, Ponselle, Steber—even Milanov, in her stagey way of interpreting. Somehow, despite Innaurato’s statement that Fleming “can create real people in the sound she emits,” she did not for me . . . and I wish she had. I’m beginning to hear the kind of deliberateness and affect I heard in the older Schwarzkopf, with whom Fleming studied for a while. I just cannot believe her portrayals of Manon, Nedda, Maria Grimaldi or Butterfly as I can the portrayals of De los Angeles, Albanese, Scotto, even Steber—a much underrated artist. I once heard Judy Blegen sing Juliette and was totally involved in her interpretation. Fleming’s Juliette sounds like a woman in her early 40s with a beautiful voice singing the waltz song.

I somehow feel that all the interpretations on this album are abstracted from the opera and transformed almost into concert arias to glorify the beautiful voice that Renée Fleming brings to us. I felt no real drama, no real involvement—and I really wish I had. For I so like her voice.

Howard in Brooklyn

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Copyright:  © 2000 Howard Levin

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