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Our 'Diva' Goes Modern

Renee Fleming, soprano  and Lang-Lessing, guest conductor of VSO

Orpheum, March 21, 2012 

Renee Fleming

Renee Fleming

     Vancouver always welcomes a visit by the ‘diva’ of our age, soprano Renee Fleming.  She is so charming, comfortable, and personable in displaying her magnificent artistry; truly the great ‘ambassador’ for opera and song.  While in previous visits she has dug into some serious and difficult works — and her performances of Strauss’ operas on MetLive always resonate in our memory too — this year was more of a fun celebrity concert, featuring a mix of serious and more popular music, including, yes, a venture into rock music.

     It was perhaps unfortunate that the only full song cycle here, Ravel’s evocative Sheherezade (1903) was performed in the first half because the soprano did not appear to be in full voice yet.  This was given a clean, intelligent treatment but was not as strongly expressive and sensual as one might expect.  The ebb and flow of the work seemed to be within carefully-controlled limits.  The following Jewel Song from Gounod’s Faust nonetheless opened out some delicious moments.


     The beginning of second half of the program featured Renee Fleming as a Broadway musical singer and as a budding rock star.  I must admit that I had not really thought about her in these genres and I was not entirely comfortable with the results.  As a pristine ‘classical’ singer, she often seemed too emotionally controlled and careful about articulation to really bend into the swing of these pieces.  In ‘Night Flight to San Francisco’, ‘Endlessly’, and Leonard Cohen’s ‘Hallelujah’, her singing was certainly conscientious but she seemed shy of pushing herself into the full sentimentality required.   In the rock song, ‘Soul Meets Body’, it was fascinating to hear the lower, throatier reaches of her voice but, once again, she seemed too metrical and studied to add much character to the song   In some ways, her superb technical training is almost a liability here.

     Things headed back to normal with a little Lehar.  And in Marietta’s Lied from Korngold’s Die Tote Stadt (which has a fascinating similarity in feel to Richard Strauss’ Four Last Songs), the long sculpted lines, the thoughtfulness and quiet tender magic that we all know and love returned.   This was carried on in full swing with the encores that included arias from Cilea’s Adriana Lecouvreur and Puccini, and a delightful, witty rendering from Bernstein’s West Side Story.  And then, just as we were ready for more, everything was over!

     This concert was indeed a bit of an experiment, and I didn’t think it built up to very much.  The orchestral interludes, rather than allowing a balance to the singing, all seemed too ‘overture-like’ and unremitting.  While we truly appreciate Renee Fleming’s desire to reach out to all types of music, I think most of us would have liked more than the few glimpses of greatness we got at the end.

© Geoffrey Newman 2012