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S & H International Concert Review



America’s best-known soprano, Renée Fleming, joined with her old friend, the conductor Christoph Eschenbach, in an appearance certain to be remembered as one of the highlights of the musical season in Paris. With the Orchestre de Paris at the Théâtre du Châtelet, she sings works from Mozart to Strauss, repertory for which she is already renowned, and easily captivated the capacity house with her vocal gifts.

Eschenbach, Musical Director of the Orchestre de Paris, was on the podium for some of her important early successes in Houston, Texas in the early 1990s and their mutual admiration society was apparent from the evenings’ inspired music making.

Although in Paris from May until mid-July, it is clear from Fleming’s schedule that she has little time for tourism. Her two concert performances of Bellini’s bel canto opera Il Pirata, at Châtelet on the 13 and 16 of May were a foretaste of what New York audiences will hear when this opera is staged, at her request, later this year at the Metropolitan Opera. After the concert with the Orchestre de Paris, she begins rehearsals for the title role in a new production of Dvorak’s Rusalka at the Opéra Bastille, which opens June 19 and continues until July 11. Conducted by the Opéra’s Principal Conductor, James Conlon, with a staging by Robert Carsen and with a strong supporting cast, it is certain to be a sold-out grand finale to the Paris opera season. Rusalka is one of the signature roles in her career and her recording of this opera on the Decca label was the Gramophone Magazine Record of the Year in 2000.

Appearing in a stunning black Issey Miyake gown, she followed the orchestra’s playing of the overture to Don Giovanni with another delicious work by Mozart, a soprano aria with rondo "Ch’io mi scordi di te?" K. 505. Arranged by Mozart for orchestra and piano as a farewell present for Nancy Storace, the first Susanna, Eschenbach conducted this musical gem - seldom heard in the concert hall but one of Mozart’s most inspired accomplishments - from the piano. Fleming sang this with a clarity of the musical line and true Mozartian style.

Before the intermission, Eschenbach took the podium to conduct the Overture to La Forza del Destino of Verdi and Fleming then returned to sing the "Willow Song" from the same composer’s Otello. It was here that she made perhaps her most significant impression. With her creamy legato, sturdy voice support, and astonishing ability to float a lovely pianissimo phrase, it is easy to see why she is considered by many to be without peer on the opera stage today. The final ascending notes of the concluding ‘Ave Maria’ of this segment was sculpted with an almost unearthly beauty and grace.

It was Richard Strauss that filled the second half of the program and it started with Eschenbach leading the orchestra in the Opus 20 tone poem, Don Juan. When he was young, and still a pianist, he spent a good bit of time at Severance Hall with the Cleveland Orchestra where he played concertos with, and watched the conducting of, the legendary George Szell. His conducting has much of the same high voltage musical style and magisterial sense of purpose of his mentor, and the orchestra played for him with uncommon purpose.

The final work on the program was the enchanting Final Scene from the opera Capriccio. Fleming, now in a gray Miyake, sang the reflections of a countess who cannot decide between two lovers, one a composer and the other a librettist. This scene, an overarching meditation on the relation between music and drama in opera, is a test of any great soprano’s interpretative talent. It could be that this scene touches on issues that the have yet to be fully explored in Miss Fleming’s still-evolving career. Some critics suggest that she relies too heavily on the free flowing golden tones and the perfectly controlled singing instrument with which she is blessed instead of probing more deeply into the underlying drama.

Some in the audience might remember the December 2000 concert performances of this same opera at the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées with Dame Felicity Lott as the conflicted countess. Lott, easy with German and having a superior ability to illuminate the text, demonstrated that more carefully marrying the text with the music can deepen the impact and appreciation of one of the composer’s finest soprano roles.

But if there were any doubts that evening, they were banished and forgotten with Miss Fleming’s single encore, "Depuis le jour" from Charpentier's "Louise" . Is there a soprano now singing who could so lovingly polish and caress each of the notes of this aria and make such a triumphant silk purse from this sow’s ear? As she took her final bows and left the flower-strewn stage, there were probably even a few jaded critics who would have, in a different age, vied with the younger fans for a chance to pull her carriage down the boulevards of Paris.

Frank Cadenhead

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