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The Philadelphia Music Season Opens with Two Sopranos by Bernard Jacobson


Presumably by coincidence, both the Kimmel Center’s own classical series and the Philadelphia Orchestra opened their 2004/05 seasons with programs featuring famous sopranos. On 18 September Kiri Te Kanawa gave a recital with pianist Warren Jones; three evenings later, it was the turn of Renée Fleming, who sang Strauss’ Four Last Songs at the orchestra’s gala Opening Night concert.


My previous encounters with both singers not having been of the happiest, I was fervently hoping to be able to change my mind about one or both of them, for I like liking things, and people, much more than not liking them. My wife, who enjoyed both performances, has sternly forbidden me to "say anything bad"–but hell, even domestic tranquility must be put at risk when critical duty calls.


On the first of these two evenings, it called in tones far more stentorian than Dame Kiri’s honeyed ones. There were indeed some beautiful notes to be heard, but they tended to be isolated phenomena, not much connected with other notes or with the content–especially the poetic content–of the songs and arias she offered, which ranged from Handel and Vivaldi by way of the French romantics to Puccini, Strauss, and Wolf-Ferrari. The best performances came in slow music like Fauré’s Après un rêve, which was touchingly sung, and particularly in her encore, presumably a Maori folk-song, and certainly a quite lovely tune.


Te Kanawa’s manner of singing has often reminded me of a fashion cartoon that appeared in Punch many years ago, depicting a lady wearing a dress that fell absolutely straight from shoulders to floor: "Pretty face and leave the rest vague," was the caption. Substitute "voice" for "face" (not that Dame Kiri is anything but good to look at, I hasten to add), and you have a capsule description of her method. The voice was always beautiful, and it still is. But in fast music, it sounds less well supported than of old, so that we were left with a kind of sketch of the melody, with every fourth or fifth note properly placed, and the rest skated over. "Fill in the blanks," was what a singer of my acquaintance in the audience remarked during intermission that we were having to do. Nor did Mr. Jones’s excessive deference and characterless piano-playing.


No less important is the obvious circumstance that this singer doesn’t love words. Macrocosmically, viewed against the backdrop of the music world’s celebrity industry, Dame Kiri is a star of considerable magnitude. Microcosmically, looked at in the context of what song is about, the core of what she has always lacked could be instanced in the first line of that superb Strauss song, Morgen. The opening lines of Mackay’s poem are "und morgen wird die Sonne wieder scheinen" ("and tomorrow the sun will shine again"). "Scheinen": a gorgeous word, rich in potential radiance and color–yet for all the trace of any of such qualities the singer drew from it, she might just as well have been singing about a cloud-obscured sunset, not a day dawning with hope and felicity.


A lack of expressive intensity has never been my problem with Renée Fleming. On the contrary, in music like Handel’s Alcina, what sometimes troubles me is the sheer overload of emotional vibrato with which she tends to obscure both musical line and stylistic aptness. I can hear the complaint, "You critics are never satisfied." The point, however, is surely that there has to be a happy medium, an appropriate balance among all the elements that go to make up song, from the poet’s words and the composer’s understanding of them to the musical language he speaks and the stylistic background of his work. Despite the dire judgments of those who would have us believe that great singing is a thing of the past, the world today is blessed with an abundance of sopranos who achieve exactly that across a wide range of repertoire: just for starters, and in no particular order, I could list Véronique Gens, Juliane Banse, Sophie Daneman, Simone Kermes, Patrizia Ciofi, Barbara Frittoli, Dominique Labelle, Patricia Petibon, Natalie Dessay, and Deborah Polaski. Well, in this performance of the Four Last Songs I am glad to say that Renée Fleming came closer to those ideals than in anything I have heard from her in the past.


Critical duty, again, compels me to report that it was not a flawless performance by any means. Along with moments that proffered glimpses of heaven, there were others rather more reminiscent of that celebrated vocal oddity Florence Foster Jenkins. The beauty was to be found almost exclusively in the middle and lower reaches of Ms. Fleming’s compass (so that the start of Frühling had me at once hoping for great things), whereas anything near the top of the stave or above it revealed her dangerously out of control. Quite aside from fallible intonation, there was a troubling hollowness to the high notes, and furthermore, when she had to negotiate the passage from high to low, she did it with an ungraceful bump.


In these supreme masterpieces of 20th-century song, moreover, clear-eyed (and aptly titled) in their confrontation with last things, I could not help feeling that, by comparison with performances I have heard by such singers as Lisa della Casa, Lucia Popp, Evelyn Lear, and Soile Isokoski, Ms. Fleming’s account had something slightly self-regarding about it. Nevertheless, this was a serious reading of great music. It respected the line, and it respected the significance of the lines. The concluding "ist dies etwa der Tod?", delivered cold, with any trace of vibrato severely eschewed, rose notably to the occasion.


And it was in any case a relief that it took place at all, given that Opening Night had been under threat from the parlous state of the Philadelphia Orchestra’s negotiations for a new contract. Three years ago, as it happens, Ms. Fleming was scheduled to sing the Four Last Songs with the orchestra, and had to cancel owing to illness. It would have been a sad irony if a strike had thwarted her this time–but fortunately, with talks going on down to the wire, an evident sense of goodwill on both sides of the table caused a one-month extension of the deadline, so that Christoph Eschenbach’s second season as music director could open as planned. Nor could the players possibly have responded more magnificently to the music on their stands. Their support in the Strauss was sumptuous, and an evening that began festively with the Prelude to Act III of Lohengrin ended even more impressively with Dvořák’s Eighth Symphony. The strings in particular sounded glorious, the great tune in the trio of the third movement was shaped with characteristic eloquence by principal oboist Richard Woodhams, and altogether Eschenbach made something grander and more substantial than I have been accustomed to expect out of what seems at first glance the least significant of the composer’s late symphonies. I have not previously heard the stertorous weak-beat brass interjections at the big climax two-thirds of the way through the first movement given with such strength and point. The stunning effect was another confirmation that, just as a critic must never take past impressions of a performer for portents of the future, so he should never underestimate the most innocent-seeming works of a master composer.



Bernard Jacobson

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