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Renée Fleming – International Voices 2009/10 concert series: Renée Fleming (soprano), Royal Philharmonic Orchestra; Charles Dutoit (conductor). Royal Festival Hall, London 3.11.2009 (JPr)

Birmingham's incarnation of  this (hopefully) money-spinning concert for the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra has been reviewed already by  Geoff Read on this site and the following evening the same music was repeated at the Royal Festival Hall in London.

In Birmingham the concert, with Ren
ée Fleming and the orchestra's new principal conductor, Charles Dutoit, and his Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, was apparently billed as ‘In Love … With Renée Fleming’ whereas in London it formed part of the 2009/10 ‘International Voices’ concert season. This was a triumph for the concert planners and the various publicity departments as it ensured a full house for an evening that brought us the celebrity guest star for an all-too-brief appearance. Admittedly this should have been expected because the musical programme has long been advertised but the title ‘International Voices’ still suggests a complete recital and not just five sung items, including three very brief ones and the encore. In fact Ms Fleming was barely on stage, let alone singing, for about 30 minutes in a two hour, 10 minute evening.

No ready explanation for such a vocal showcase offering so little seemed available, particularly as the concert could easily be linked to Ms Fleming’s recent CD release Verismo from which she sang three arias. On the strength of this concert though and the amount of ticket money paid for such paltry fare, it would seem unlikely that many would rush to buy this CD … except perhaps for the desperate need to hear Ms Fleming sing more. The concert organisers might well have believed of course, that the sight of Ms Fleming on stage wrapped up in her café crème Vivienne Westwood gown was enough - and indeed since she got many rousing ‘Bravas’ before she actually sang,  they just might have been  right.  Even the printed programme joined in to build up expectations for this ultimately disappointing event by going on about how ‘this great soprano will need to summon all her skills to perform taxing arias that make extraordinary musical, physical and emotional demands …’. Actually, her warm-up was probably more taxing!

In the first half of the concert, in the absence of Ms Fleming we were given substantial extracts from Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet for some reason. Personally, I find great pleasure in this score because it brings back wonderful memories of the great 1977 Nureyev production complete with its dramatic darkness, spectacular swordfights, acrobats, the gripping romance between the lovers and, of course, the fateful dénouement. Accompanied by all these mind pictures,  the music passed agreeably enough and Charles Dutoit seemed to have an appropriate feel for the changing moods of what we heard - although what anybody without an experience of this music in the theatre would have made of it, I am less sure. The chosen selections did not come together in this quasi- symphonic suite, as it was slightly repetitive, feltfragmented and was heavily reliant on tenor saxophone, bass trombone and tuba. The Royal Philharmonic played it all vigorously but without completely eliminating a sense of the ‘routine’ about their performance. Some further strange musical planning then brought us Tchaikovsky’s 1880 Fantasy Overture on the same subject matter (Romeo and Juliet) – expressly included for comparison, I imagine. This music at least benefits from being written specifically for the concert platform and its insistent love theme underpins the heart-swelling passionate climaxes that Tchaikovsky builds up. Dutoit and his committed orchestra gave a turbulently expressive account of this over-familiar piece.

Finally some reflections on Ms Fleming herself:  she began with Tatiana’s Letter Scene from Eugene Onegin and unfortunately this also suffered from some of the longueurs that bedevilled the earlier Prokoviev. There is a need  here too to experience some of what is supposed to be going on visually as (further) long orchestral sections ‘depict’ the actual writing of a letter. In the concert hall the diva was left passing  time away patiently, waiting for the  next time to sing. The beautifully schooled, if not particularly very large voice, had a winsome girlish quality about it for Tatiana’s emotional adolescent outpourings though I must admit  some doubts about her heavily accented Russian pronunciation which, for me anyway, intruded on her account of this substantial item,  making it sound unlike any other version  I had ever heard.

Ms Fleming followed this with snippets from Leoncavallo’s neglected version of La bohème to which she brought a playfulness and lightness of tone that more in keeping with operetta than Verismo. Much of the  same vocal quality was also evident in her otherwise ardent ‘Nel suo amore rianimata’ from Giordano’s seldom-heard Siberia although this did  provided her with a chance to show off  her characteristically beautiful pure soprano line once again.  Then, and almost finally, Manon Lescaut’s ‘Sola, perduta, abbandonata’ gave us some impassioned intensity:   Ms Fleming’s peerless vocal refinement bringing a palpable sense of resignation to ‘Ah! tutto è finito!’ although never quite abandoning herself totally to her character’s plight.

Ending the concert as though everybody was ‘on the clock’ and time meant money,  Ms Fleming announced that there would be only one encore and this turned out to be yet another short item. ‘O mio babbino caro’, from Gianni Schicchi was certainly exquisitely sung but because of the generational disparity between the real Ms Fleming and Puccini’s young Lauretta,  its emotional impact was  much reduced … And that was that!

Jim Pritchard


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