Renée Fleming Love-Fest at Symphony Hall

Braving Boston Blizzards to Hear People's Diva

By: - Feb 12, 2015

Renée Fleming, soprano, and Olga Kern, piano
A recital presented by Celebrity Series of Boston
Symphony Hall, Sunday, February 8, 2015
Music by Robert Schumann (“Frauenliebe und –leben”), songs by Sergei Rachmaninoff and Richard Strauss and encores by Strauss, George Gershwin, Lerner and Loewe, and Giacomo Puccini

Renée Fleming’s Sunday afternoon recital at Symphony Hall was a total love fest from the moment she walked onto the stage in an electric blue gown and shawl to the very end when the audience reluctantly left after a costume change and her four generous encores.

And the love seemed to pour in both directions. On one of the many miserable days in recent weeks, the audience went to considerable trouble to get there – I witnessed an elderly woman using a cane stopped by a snow bank at the corner of Mass Ave and Saint Stephen’s Street lifted by two strangers to the other side. And Symphony Hall was close to full. Before she began to sing, Fleming, who spoke to the audience frequently and colloquially, acknowledged the effort collectively made. “First of all, I would like to thank all of you for coming out on this horrible afternoon.” And she repeated her thanks at the end. “Again, thank you. When I left my hotel I thought I’d sing to an empty hall, and then this - gesturing to the audience,” putting her hand over her heart.

Among singers today, Fleming has achieved a status that transcends her glorious voice and her intelligent interpretations of the vocal repertory. She is called “the people’s diva” for a reason. Although her bearing, attire and grooming are aristocratic, she remains normal, humble even, grateful for the joy she elicits from her listeners. She seems to be a truly nice person.

One more anecdote: I left my Brookline apartment fearing that I might never get to Symphony Hall in time or ever get there at all. The beleaguered T, under-funded for the past 20-plus years by governors both Republican and Democrat, performed badly during the recent storm(s). (And the new Republican governor has proposed cutting its budget!) There was a woman waiting when I got to my local stop. I asked her how long she’d been there, and she said only a few minutes. I said I was worried whether I’d get to Symphony Hall in time to hear a concert. “Oh, who’s performing?” she asked. “Renée Fleming is giving a recital.” “Renée Fleming?” Her eyes lit up. “When my husband was dying, in a coma, I played her CD “The Beautiful Voice” for him, hoping that it might comfort him in his final moments.”

See what I mean? The People’s Diva!

It’s always a problem for an opera star to address the Lieder repertoire. It’s not easy or natural to bring the voice down from the dramatic heights demanded in opera to the intimacy of the song. Yet the only reason an audience fills Symphony Hall for a recital is to hear a diva. So the singer has to negotiate the desire of the audience to hear a voice that can fill the Met without effort and the more modest but often more rewarding demands of Lieder. It’s like the difference between hearing a symphony and a quartet.

Fleming has no trouble bridging that divide. (Of course, Symphony Hall is a big barn – 2,625 seats.) She was able to address the subtleties of the songs she sang without giving up her status as a diva. What a pleasure it was to hear her.

Of course, all was not perfect in diva heaven. At 56, Fleming is no longer in her vocal prime, and she is transitioning to operetta – her recent appearance in Franz Lehár’s “Merry Widow” at the Met got mixed reviews – and theater. She made a plug from the stage about her forthcoming Broadway appearance in “Living on Love,” which - shout-out to locals - premiered at the Williamstown Theater Festival. She asked the local audience to “be kind to me” if they should see it, expressing a neediness that revealed her human vulnerability.

For all that, Fleming still has her radiant high notes, and her low voice is rich and full of color, although her middle voice has gotten thin and sometimes ragged. She made the most of it. When, as her first encore she finished singing Strauss’s demanding “Cäcilie” with a ringing top note, she put her hand to her chest and signaled “thank god” with her eyes. She made it. Ten years ago, there would have been no question.

We are living though a period I call the twilight of the divas. Deborah Voigt, Natalie Dessay and Fleming, all of whom have recently given recitals here, all sponsored by the Celebrity Series, once electrified the opera stage. Now, they’re winding down, canceling performances of roles they once tossed off with aplomb because their instrument, body-based, is no longer there when they need it. Dessay, a fiercely intelligent singer, is now doing Michel Legrand; Voigt, whose intelligence has never been revealed, gave an unsatisfyingly disjointed recital here last year. Fleming is in the best shape – she still has her voice – and she fills concert halls and opera houses wherever she sings. From that generation, Putin-supporter Anna Netrebko seems to be the last diva standing, electrifying audiences at the Met even as she is greeted with protesters. Meanwhile, we await a new generation of sopranos, the money-shot vocal category in opera.

As to be expected, Fleming put together an intelligent program, maybe too intelligent, singing songs by German Romantic Robert Schumann, Russian nostalgist Sergei Rachmaninoff and late Romantic avatar Richard Strauss.

Ambitiously, she opened the program with a true song cycle (as opposed to just a group of songs), Schumann’s “Frauenliebe und –leben” (A Woman’s Love and Life), which in 8 short songs, set to poems by Adelbert von Chamisso, tells the story of a young woman smitten by love, who marries the man of her desires, gives birth, and then mourns his early death, her world becoming a void. (Love and death are never far apart in the Romantic universe.) The German song literature is one of the great glories of classical music and it tends to be the province of specialists. Such work is outside Fleming’s usual practice. And it showed. She kept her eye glued to the score a little too obviously to give confidence that she knew the music by heart. There were moments when you felt that she wanted to let her voice soar against the massed forces of a large orchestra. But, for the most part, she found the right balance for voice accompanied only by a piano.

But clearly, this was not her forte. The cycle is written for a low female voice and contraltos like Janet Baker and mezzos like Lorraine Hunt Lieberson excelled at it. The music did not settle easily on Fleming’s voice. From the first note, her middle register, where most of the music lay, sounded thin, growing fuller at the bottom, bringing out rich dark chocolate tones.

Still, she exhibited impeccable vocalism within her current limits. There were many satisfying moments. In the third song, “Ich kann’s nicht fassen, nicht glauben” (I can’t grasp or believe it), she began playfully, gobsmacked as they say today, by the fact that her inamorato returns her feelings. She expressed both excitement and joy with radiance of sound and being. In a different mode, she expressed a more confident, less giddy joy in the next song, “Du Ring an meinem Finger” (Thou ring upon my finger), dialing it down. A lovely interpretation.

Her most emotionally expressive moments, in which she brought her operatic background to the cycle, were in “Süsser Freund, du blickest” (Sweet friend, thou gazest), which recounts the wedding night, joy mingled with sadness, with foreshadows of both their child and her lover’s early death.

Fleming seemed to grow in confidence as she advanced through the cycle. In the final song, “Nun hast du mir den ersten Schmerz getan” (Now thou hast given me, for the first time, pain), she nailed the emotional desolation of her husband’s death. There are no happy endings in Romantic song cycles.

The final song ended with a coda for piano in which the main theme is repeated and explored. Russian pianist Olga Kern, who was a true partner in the concert, not just an accompanist, played with limpid lightness, letting the sadness of the cycle speak for itself in music, no words necessary.

Even though Fleming brought us to a point of emotional devastation by the final song, the cycle did not hold together as a cycle should. The fact that she stopped half way through to allow late arrivals be seated didn’t help matters. Better to have opened with a shorter work after which stragglers could enter the hall and then embark on the song cycle, which ideally should be one uninterrupted integral work.

After a long intermission – Fleming revealed that there had been a “costume malfunction” backstage and she had had to be sewn into her now golden gown - everything went better. The Rachmaninoff set was a better match for her voice. It was all a lovely dreaminess, and I have to admit that I don’t remember a thing about it other than the fact that Fleming displayed the full, rounded, ringing high notes for which she is famous and that she and Kern made more of their partnership than they did in the Schumann, which was because of the music not a reordering of priorities.

Kern played a brief piano solo, “Lilacs,” which was Rachmaninoff’s favorite flower. It was light and lovely with skipping notes, a charming addition to late Impressionism.

One wishes Kern had been given another opportunity - or two – to be given the main ring, but the crowd paid their money for Fleming, and they got their money’s worth.

Strauss, of course, is the composer with whom Fleming has the greatest rapport and professional success. Of the several productions of “Der Rosenkavalier” I have heard, Fleming’s San Francisco Opera performance, along with Leonie Rysanek’s at the Met and Elisabeth Söderström’s with Sarah Caldwell’s Opera Company of Boston, were the very very best, transfixing and transporting. I attended the opera in San Francisco, which is known for its unengaged and undemonstrative audience, for 13 years. Fleming’s performance as the Marschallin elicited the only true ovation I ever heard there, the audience holding back for a few minutes their final desperate run up the aisles to get to their cars for the drive back to their wealthy Peninsula and East Bay communities or to make their reservations at nearby restaurants for champagne and caviar to applaud the performance of their lives.

Curiously, Fleming’s relatively short Strauss set did not include any of his showstoppers. And in the spirit of collaboration, it included several songs that gave the piano an equal role with the soprano. Still, his music was written with a profound understanding and love of the high female voice, and Fleming, especially in the touching “Meinem Kinde” (My Child), sang with lush, lyrical, melting voice, bringing the audience to a deeper love than it had felt before.

Encores are obligatory in the recital tradition. But they serve an important function: they rouse a maybe tired audience by delivering something different, lighter or more dramatic. Fleming’s four encores were perfectly chosen. She began with that showstopper by Strauss she had held back moments before. Acknowledging to the audience that Strauss was central to her life and career, she let loose with his rapturous “Cäcilie,” which she dispatched with her famous burnished tone.

She followed the Strauss with two American songs, George Gershwin’s “Summertime” from “Porgy and Bess,” arguably the greatest American opera, and Lerner and Loewe’s “I Could Have Danced All Night” from “My Fair Lady,” arguably the greatest American musical.

Fleming has famously squandered precious time from the years of her vocal peak to sing “jazz” and pop music, neither of which she has much talent for. (And I bet that Cassandra Wilson would not be so great at Strauss, but she’s smart enough not to try.) Fleming closed a recital in San Francisco with a totally square interpretation of Duke Ellington’s “It Don’t Mean a Thing If It Ain’t Got that Swing,” without a touch of swing. In “Summertime” she revealed that she has come a long way in her ability to sing jazz-like music. She even credibly bent notes a couple of times. In any case, the song, a lullaby, fully suits her talents and she gave it a ravishing reading, far more fluent than in “I Want Magic,” her CD of American arias and songs.

One could see “My Fair Lady” as the last gasp of Viennese operetta. (Loewe was born in Germany to Austrian parents.) Fleming started it off in appropriate light operatic style, but quickly turned the song into a sing-along, asking the audience to sing the chorus with her, which it did with spirit. I’d never heard a hootenanny at Symphony Hall, but leave it to the people’s diva to lead one.

She closed with something entirely different again – Puccini’s ever-popular “Mio Babbino Caro,” a rare lyrical moment in the frenetic comedy “Gianni Schicchi” that has proved a favorite of sopranos and audiences everywhere. Although the final note was a little forced, Fleming knocked it off without apparent effort, and the audience left in raptures to face the snow and slush of a New England winter.