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Homage The Age of the Diva – Renée Fleming
Renée Fleming (soprano); Yvona Škvárová (mezzo) (Jenufa); Kirill Terentiev (violin) (Jenufa)
Orchestra of the Marinsky Theatre/Valery Gergiev
rec. Mariinsky Theatre, St Petersburg, 30 June, 1 July, 8, 10 August 2006. DDD
DECCA 475 8069

Francesco CILEA (1866–1950)

Adriana Lecouvreur (1902): Poveri fiori [3:27];
Bedrich SMETANA (1824–1884)

Dalibor (1868): Dobrá! Já mu je dám! … Jak je mi? [3:16];
Pyotr Il’yich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840–1893)

Oprichnik (1874): Pochudilis mne budto golosa [3:34];
Giacomo PUCCINI (1858–1924)

Tosca (1900): Vissi d’arte [3:50];
Erich Wolfgang KORNGOLD (1897–1957)

Das Wunder der Heliane (1927): Ich ging zu ihm [6:40];
Charles GOUNOD (1818–1893)

Mireille (1864): Le ciel rayonne, l’oiseau chante … Ô légère hirondelle [3:39];
Richard STRAUSS (1864–1949)

Die Liebe der Danae (1944): Orchesterzwischenspiel [3:18]; Wie umgibst du mich mit Frieden [4:52];
Nikolay RIMSKY-KORSAKOV (1844–1908)

Servilia (1902): Tsvetï moi! [4:36];
Giuseppe VERDI (1813–1901)

Il trovatore (1853): Tacea la notte … Di tale amor [5:12];
Jules MASSENET (1842–1912)

Cléopâtre (1914): J’ai versé le poison dans cette coupe d’or [4:37];
Leoš JANÁČEK (1854–1928)

Jenůfa (1904): Mamičko, mám těžkou hlavu …[9:26]; Kdo to je?Jenůfa, ty jsi ještě vzůru? [4:48];
Erich Wolfgang KORNGOLD

Die Kathrin (1939): Ich soll ihn niemals, niemals mehr sehn [4:43];


Returning from a trip to Helsinki on 10 December, the day of the Nobel Prize Ceremony in Stockholm, I found that I had missed the radio broadcast of a concert given two days earlier for Nobel Prize winners with families and specially invited guests at the Stockholm Concert Hall. Guest soloist, on her first visit to Sweden, was Renée Fleming. The reviewers of the two leading morning papers waxed lyrical about her singing. On a catholic programme, ranging from Richard Strauss’s Capriccio to Broadway musicals, she also included two numbers from her latest CD – the Tosca and Trovatore arias. It would have been nice to hear her live performances for comparison.

To refresh my memory I played a couple of tracks from her Bel Canto disc, which was recorded almost seven years earlier. What is immediately noticeable on this new disc is that the creamy quality, which made her such a popular singer but also caused some critics to complain about blandness, isn’t quite as creamy any more; the quick vibrato has widened a mite and the tone has hardened, there is more edge to it. This is not only a disadvantage since it also makes the voice more dramatic and expressive, and her real forte, to sing these ravishingly controlled pianissimos, is undiminished. There are always pros and cons when a voice ages – just as with wines – and Renée Fleming has reached a stage when the acid is a little more conspicuous and so more suited to meatier dishes while still light enough to be enjoyed with fowl. Adriana Lecouvreur, for instance, needs both the edge and the lightness, but it is the soft legato singing that impresses most. The big romantic gestures of Milada in Smetana’s Dalibor benefits from the greater heft in the voice, even more Nataliya’s aria from Tchaikovsky’s first operatic success, Oprichnik, sung with great intensity. She catches Tosca’s grief admirably, addressing not an audience but God and finishes on a marvellous pianissimo, maybe excessively held but impressive even so.

Korngold as opera composer is mainly known for Die tote Stadt, which has had a renaissance lately but there is memorable music in the remaining four operas too and Renée Fleming soars beautifully in both. The role of Heliane in Das Wunder der Heliane was created by the great Lotte Lehmann, who also recorded it, but Ms Fleming can definitely be mentioned in the same breath as her great predecessor - praise indeed. Even more beautiful is the letter scene from Die Kathrin which got its belated premiere in Stockholm. It is reminiscent of the more well-known aria from Die tote Stadt; the opera is worth getting to know as a whole. There is – as far as I know – only one complete recording (cpo 999 602-2) where Melanie Diener sings the aria beautifully. Renée Fleming is even more inward and makes it a magical conclusion to this very varied recital.

The waltz aria from Mireille has been recorded many times and I don’t feel that Ms Fleming’s attempt counts among the best. She sounds uncomfortable in the coloratura passages. Richard Strauss suits her voice much better and the aria from Die Liebe der Danae is in the best vein of his writing for the soprano voice as we know it from, say, Arabella or Capriccio. Also here there is a wonderful pianissimo end. The opera was completed in 1944 but Strauss never saw it staged; it wasn’t premiered until 1952 and is still seldom heard. Even more of a rarity is Rimsky-Korsakov’s Servilia, which was first given at the Mariinsky Theatre in 1902 and two years later in Moscow, but after that – silence. It was actually regarded as lost until quite recently a copy was found in the library of the Mariinsky Theatre, so this aria is a kind of reprise premiere after more than a century. The tessitura is high as so often with Rimsky-Korsakov but this is no problem for Ms Fleming.

Also in the Trovatore aria she excels in sensitive pianissimo singing and the end of the aria proper is magical. In the cabaletta, Di tale amor, she is more at ease with the florid singing than in the Mireille excerpt and she sings it with zest.

Massenet’s Cléopâtre is another rarity. It was his last completed opera and was premiered two years after his death. It deals with the romance between Mark Antony and Cleopatra and in this aria, from act 3, "she offers to kiss any of her slaves who is bold enough to drink from a poisoned chalice, almost certainly to die". The aria is slow and languorous and is sung by Ms Fleming seductively in a lazy manner, visually speaking with half-closed eyes.

The only role represented on this disc that Fleming has sung on stage is Jenůfa and even without knowing this, one could have guessed, since there is such identification and such a rich palette of colours, such expressiveness. This is also the most dramatic music on the whole disc and she sings with such abandon that the effect is almost visual. We also briefly hear Yvona Škvárová as an involved Kostelniča. Quite the most touching moment on this disc is towards the end of this long scene when Kostelniča tells Jenůfa that her little son is dead and Jenůfa reacts: Tož umřel, tož umřel můj chlapčok radostný … (So de’s died, he’s died, my happy little lad …), sung with heartrending feeling and simple beauty with Gergiev unfolding Janáček’s expressive scoring. This is great music theatre and Fleming is actually on a level to challenge even Elisabeth Söderström and Gabriela Benackova, arguably the two foremost exponents of this role during the last forty years or so.

Valery Gergiev and his orchestra are pillars of strength in backing up all these scenes and arias and the recording is excellent. The title of the disc, Homage, refers to Renée Fleming’s wish to pay tribute to a number of great sopranos who sang these parts when they were new. The booklet is lavishly illustrated with photos of Maria Jeritza, Emmy Destinn (fondling a lion lying on a grand piano!), Lotte Lehmann, admiring herself on a poster, Rosa Ponselle and several others, plus a generous helping of photos of Ms Fleming herself. Full texts and translation, a note on the music and a note from Renée Fleming. My only complaint is the usual one: why does the track-list have to be in brown against a black background?. Thank God the print is large enough to be read without a magnifying glass.

Göran Forsling


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