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Seen and Heard Concert Review



Renée Fleming:
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, cond. Andreas Delfs. Barbican Hall,
Saturday 02.12. 2006 (M E) 



You’d be able to afford a John Galliano gown if you had a fiver for every mention of the word ‘diva’ in the papers over the past two weeks, in connection with Fleming: of course, such pieces are nice easy copy for music journalists who are paid to ‘discover’ that Fleming is (gasp!) ‘The last Diva’ or alternatively ‘Not a Diva at all.’ Reactions to this soprano amongst readers and friends puzzle me: people who are capable of being quite pleasant about singers I would regard as frankly second rate, seem to regard Ms Fleming with the kind of hate which they normally reserve for, say, Anna Netrebko: is she just too much, as a friend more measured in her views suggested – is it that she has it all, and that is somehow disturbing? This recital demonstrated that even if she does not quite possess every quality, she has enough both to enchant her audience and leave the more impartial critic searching for superlatives.


Mozart’s ‘Laudamus te’ from the Mass in C minor was not the easiest piece with which to open a programme: written for Constanze, possibly to help her to impress her new father-and-sister-in-law, this florid music taxes at any time, but perhaps more so as the opener to a much hyped recital in a large hall – Fleming’s lovely tone and joyful mien were entirely appropriate to such sentiments as ‘Glorificamus te,’ but some of the faster passagework was smudged, and I doubt if much of the quieter parts could have been audible beyond the stalls. She was not helped by the lacklustre orchestra and conductor, of which more (but as little as possible) later. Dank sei Dir, Herr showed off her fine phrasing, but ‘Poveri fiori’ and ‘Vissi d’arte’ were both somewhat marred by the odd bit of ‘snatch and grab’ in the approach to some of the higher notes. Nevertheless, there was some fine singing to savour here, especially in phrases such as ‘O il Bacio primo’ (Cilea) and ‘Sempre con fe’ sincera’ (Puccini).


The first half of the concert ended with ‘Tacea la notte…Di tale amor’ in a performance both fiery and mellifluous; the recitative was exquisitely done, with that wonderful management of pauses and brief phrases which is so much this singer’s hallmark, but the cabaletta felt rather rushed, as though she wanted to have it over with. Do we expect something too close to perfection from Fleming? I think we may, since having heard the predictable moaning in the interval and the same old ‘You just need to compare Callas’ etc (oh, do change that record) I did exactly that afterwards, and what do you know – there’s just as much aspirating, just as much grabbing at the high notes, and no greater feel for the language in those recordings.


Whatever comparisons may be made about her Verdi, Puccini, Mozart or Cilea, she simply has no peer when it comes to the music which made up most of the second half, and all credit to her that she champions this relatively obscure material rather than clinging to the beloved standards. The highlight of the whole evening, for me, was Milada’s recitative and aria ‘Dobrá! Já mu je dám!...Radostí nesmírnou’ (All right! I will give it to him…For joy my eyes grow dim) from Smetana’s Dalibor: for those who don’t know the piece, think of it as Fidelio without the stupid bits (well, all right, then, without the daftly contrived happy ending – guy gets left to rot in jail for years and is saved at the last moment thanks to ‘God’s providence?’ Give me a break.) and with a bleakly tragic ending which, when you see it on stage, has you wanting to tear your own eyes out. In this aria, the heroine, driven on by urgent violins rather in the manner of ‘O namenlose Freude’ finally makes her way to her husband’s cell, and as she approaches it she begs that she may be able to rescue him. The music is extraordinarily demanding, not only in its extremes of vocal range but its naked emotion: there is no one to touch Fleming here, and her prayer ‘O, nebe, nebe, dej, at’ tak se stane! (O heaven, heaven, let it come to pass!) was sung with the most wonderful freedom in the upper register, and the most intensely passionate emotion.


Korngold and Strauss were equally well served: ‘Ich ging zu ihm’ from Das Wunder der Heliane was sung with the kind of white-hot intensity, absolute identification with every nuance of the text and sheer mellifluousness of line which one associates only with the greatest; I know the famous Lehmann recording very well, and Fleming proved easily her equal. The heroine of Daphne is of course one of Fleming’s signature roles, and her performance of ‘Ich komme – ich komme – grünende Brüder’ was as close to perfection as anyone could wish, with eloquent phrasing, liquid tone and wonderfully poised characterization.  


The two encores, ‘O mio babbino caro’ and the wonderful ‘Letter scene’ from Korngold’s Die Kathrin were as finely done as anything in the main programme, and one was left thrilled by Fleming’s versatility. Far less thrilling was the orchestral music with which the arias had been interspersed – I have fulminated about this before, but in a Lieder recital one does not expect, say, Roger Vignoles to delight us with a waltz, so why should these programmes have to include bits and pieces of inconsequential instrumental chunks? Not that the music itself lacked consequence – Mendelssohn’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream ‘Nocturne’ for example has one of the most beautiful horn solos ever written – but neither the Royal Philharmonic Concert Orchestra nor its conductor, Andreas Delfs, were really up to it. Of course world famous ‘divi’ don’t expect to be upstaged by their orchestras, but most Lieder singers do not seem to mind sharing the platform with their musical equals. More Strauss, Korngold and Smetana arias next time, please, and fewer ill-chosen interludes: perhaps for her next recital, Ms Fleming will greet us with ‘Dich, teure Halle’ – I would not be at all surprised.



Melanie Eskenazi



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Contributors: Marc Bridle (North American Editor), Martin Anderson, Patrick Burnson, Frank Cadenhead, Colin Clarke, Paul Conway, Geoff Diggines, Sarah Dunlop, Evan Dickerson Melanie Eskenazi (London Editor) Robert J Farr, Abigail Frymann, Göran Forsling, Simon Hewitt-Jones, Bruce Hodges,Tim Hodgkinson, Martin Hoyle, Bernard Jacobson, Tristan Jakob-Hoff, Ben Killeen, Bill Kenny (Regional Editor), Ian Lace, Jean Martin, John Leeman, Neil McGowan, Bettina Mara, Robin Mitchell-Boyask, Simon Morgan, Aline Nassif, Anne Ozorio, Ian Pace, John Phillips, Jim Pritchard, John Quinn, Peter Quantrill, Alex Russell, Paul Serotsky, Harvey Steiman, Christopher Thomas, John Warnaby, Hans-Theodor Wolhfahrt, Peter Grahame Woolf (Founder & Emeritus Editor)