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In Love……With Renée Fleming: Birmingham International Season Concert with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra,Charles Dutoit (Conductor) and Renée Fleming (soprano) Birmingham Symphony Hall, 2.11.2009 (GR)

Mondays are not usually the most popular night for classical concerts and it often takes a big name to pack people in. Renée Fleming is one of the most in-demand classical singers today, one with a reputation that deservedly precedes her. The title of this concert In Love…..With Renée Fleming was presumably chosen to put bums on seats. It certainly did, but
I wondered now may people left having had their expectations fulfilled. I didn’t, mainly because Ms Fleming, clearly the principal reason for seat prices being set at top level, was on platform for only about one third of the 90 min total performance time.

In his programme introduction Andrew Jowett, Director of the Town Hall and Symphony Hall, said Charles Dutoit and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra were ‘lending support’. In fact their two orchestral pieces dominated the proceedings and at least they gave value for money. Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet - Ballet Music Op 64 opened their account. Maestro Dutoit had selected seven excerpts from Suites 1 & 2, mixing them up to produce an interesting potion. The percussion of the RPO left the audience in little doubt as to warring polarities of the Montagues and the Capulets, in contrast to the subsequent innocent impression from the strings in Juliet – the Young Girl. The woodwinds featured strongly in the Madrigal illustrating that love was in the air. The Minuet majestically portrayed one of the chief dances of the ballet and the dreams of Romeo and Juliet balanced hope and despair. The Death of Tybalt demonstrated another side of Prokofiev and the RPO – noisy, violent, exciting and dissonant. Romeo at Juliet’s Grave displayed all the drama of Shakespeare’s play in musical form as Dutoit squeezed out the agony of their lost love. Dutoit - looking decidedly younger than when I last saw him in 2004 - rightly singled out principal trumpet Brian Thompson and Kyle Horch on Tenor Saxophone.

Enter Ms Fleming after the interval to deliver the Letter Scene from Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin. Comparisons with Kristine Opolais who gave it here in the Birmingham Symphony Hall less than a month ago (surely a slip from the schedule planners) were inevitable. But whereas Opolais had looked and assumed the character, Fleming did not come across as an innocent lovesick Russian girl, neither vulnerable nor innocent. Her rather drab, but surely expensive, silk gown and a modest hairdo did not help – an impression more in keeping with the mature character Tatyana later becomes. Fleming did produce a good finish but the former prom queen seemed a million miles from her girl-next-door image.

The full orchestra then rendered Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet – Fantasy Overture; it was a robust performance, but this was not what the audience had come to see. Fleming duly returned for her scheduled four arias, beginning with two from Leoncavello’s La Bohème, not quite the full crossover but almost. The first was Mimi’s Musette svaria sulla bocca viva, a charming little number that expresses the carefree nature of Musetta; Fleming delightfully skipped along to the dance rhythm of the song that reminded me of Léhar. The second was Musetta’s response, a tit for tat insight of Mimi’s character, Mimi Pinson la bioninetta which demonstrated clearly that Fleming was equally at ease with the lower mezzo register. Nel suo amore from the rarely performed opera Siberia by Giordano followed. There was a distinct change of mood from Fleming and one that suited her creaminess: Stéphane although singing of her new found love is tortured by her dissolute past. Here was quality, but little width. The final scheduled aria was Sola, perduta, abbandonata, from Puccini’s Manon Lescaut: Fleming had saved the best for last, demonstrating why she has reached her star status. At last, we had an aria that displayed drama and passion with orchestra and soloist on the same wavelength. Concerning the fate of the lost and abandoned Manon, the phrase Ah! Tutto e finito, was breathtaking. The second half Italianate repertoire from Fleming was so much better – the applause was generous but far from rapturous. It prompted one encore, the inevitable O mio babbino cara, lapped up by those devoted fans present.

The programme notes told us how the choice of pieces performed had come about – different treatments of specific love themes. This conception by Dutoit and Fleming was clever on paper, but I am not sure that consideration of the public – at least in terms of the number of vocal items - been high on their agenda

Geoff Read

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