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S & H Concert Review

Mozart, Massenet, R. Strauss, Verdi, Wolf-Ferrari, Puccini, Catalani Renée Fleming (soprano); London Philharmonic Orchestra/Patrick Summers, Thursday, March 25th, 2004 (CC)


Renée Fleming has a massive following. She has a high-profile recording contract. She has it all … or does she?

Previously I had only heard Fleming live once before, in a rather self-consciously beautiful account of Dvorák’s ‘O silver Moon’ from Rusalka at a Gramophone Awards ceremony. Here was a whole evening of her. Rumours have flown around that she is absolutely hypnotic live. Could they be true? Unfortunately, the answer is no.

This was a curious evening. It began with a run-through of the Overture to Mozart’s Nozze di Figaro – ‘run-through’ being the operative description, as there appeared to have been little or no rehearsal. This was as routine Mozart as you are likely to find anywhere, with little of the hustle and bustle that one might expect from this fizzy little opener. Still, we hardly got a chance to applaud (should we want to), because Fleming came straight on.

More Mozart. Fiordiligi’s ‘Come scoglio’ (Così fan tutte) is a notorious display piece and a brave way to begin the vocal part of the concert. But right from the start (Fleming sang the preceding recitative) words were not clear, the orchestra obediently mirroring this in its own way with some scrappy ensemble. The large leaps of the aria proper produced unfocussed low notes. Things did improve – Fleming hits pitches in her upper register bang in the middle, her trills are text-book and there was even some characterisation in the faux-girlie delivery towards the end. Yet the feeling was that all was not entirely well.

Things took a turn for the better, both orchestrally and vocally, in Massenet. The orchestra produced a nicely shaped ‘Le sommeil de Desdemona’ from Suite No. 3 (a nice link to the Verdi Otello excerpt later in the evening), and Fleming proved that the Recitative and Gavotte from Manon is perfect music for her voice. This was immediately apparent, right from the first phrase. Fleming brought a wide range of expression to this section, including some miraculously pure high notes on the crucial line ‘Je suis belle’ and some gorgeous, bell-like staccato passages. Alas some of the words became unclear again, but there was at least the impression of some improvement.

Language No. 3 for Richard Strauss’ Capriccio (‘Mondscheinmusik’ and the Countess’ monologue). Immediately there were doubts as to the wisdom of this choice. The orchestra seemed far too small for Strauss’ orchestrational palette (only five cellos that I could see) and did, indeed sound anaemic (including a tonally challenged extended horn solo). Fleming’s German sounded as if from school and overall there was little special here. Perhaps the greatest shame was the lack of any special feeling at the word ‘Tod’ (‘Death’), despite Strauss’ deliberate harmonic shading here. Fleming’s voice remained lovely but detached.

The ‘Desdemona’ Scene from Verdi’s Otello after the interval was prefaced by a lacklustre (not entirely together but this time not completely unrehearsed) Sicilian Vespers Overture. The LPO was even better later in Wolf-Ferrari’s Overture to Il segreto di Susanna, which fizzed along nicely. Fleming seemed more at home in the Verdi (from ‘Mi parea’ through the Willow Song and on to the Ave Maria). Words were much clearer, cries of ‘Salce!’ fairly affecting. Yet she could still be four-square (‘Se prima di te morir dovessi/mi seppellisci con un di quei veli’) and she failed to blossom on ‘Cantiamo!’.

The highlight of the evening came with ‘O mio babbino caro’ from Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi. Her voice sounded young enough to believe she could have a father who was still alive, and there was a real gentleness about the end. Similarly, ‘Ebben? … Ne andrò lontana’ from Catalani’s La Wally showed more of the Fleming people had presumably come to hear. She did at least sound sad to leave her home while at the same time reaching a decent decibel level – but had she really spent the whole recital saving herself for the last two items?

There were encores (naturally, plus a fair few people on their feet – perhaps they needed a stretch). We stayed for two and before we were on our feet, too, homewards – some Cilea (‘Io son lumile ancella’) with a nice sense of line and a Richard Strauss song (‘Caecile’) that found Fleming trying to sound like Schwarzkopf and failing. Infinitely disappointing.

Colin Clarke




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