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.