Renée Fleming - Verismo
see end of review for full details
Renée Fleming (soprano)
Coro e Orchestra Sinfonica di Milano, Giuseppe Verdi/Marco Armiliato
rec. 5, 6, 8-10 August 2008, Auditorium di Milano. Italy. DDD
DECCA 478 1533 [72:20]

On this new Decca release prolific recording artist and much loved soprano Renée Fleming sings Italian arias popular and rare. We have opera arias by Puccini from La bohème, Turandot, La rondine, Suor Angelica and Manon Lescaut. In addition Fleming has unearthed many forgotten opera jewels including rare repertoire by Puccini’s contemporaries Mascagni, Giordano, Cilea, Catalani, Leoncavallo and Zandonai. The period covered by the disc is a concentrated one, yet immensely rich and prolific, ranging from La Wally in 1892 to Turandot in 1926. 
The title of the disc Verismo refers to the artistic and cultural movement aimed at the realism of contemporary everyday life that flashed comet-like across the arts world.  
Most of the verismo composers formed part of the giovane scuola (young school) a larger group of Italian composers who had made the remarkable transition from the legacy of Verdi. Flourishing at the turn of the 20th century these composers were strongly influenced by the naturalistic literary movement of authors such as Émile Zola. In the world of Italian opera verismo originated in 1890 with Mascagni’s one act Cavalleria rusticana. Strangely heroine Santuzza’s aria Voi lo sapete from Mascagni’s landmark opera is not included in this collection.

Choosing the repertoire for Verismo was a revelatory process for Renée Fleming, “I was surprised by the sheer volume and variety of the Italian operas from this period that we aren’t familiar with Above all, my goal with this recording is to share a broader selection from an especially rich tradition of Italian opera, so that these Verismo heroines can be heard again in all their beauty and complexity.”

Fleming here portrays a wide range of heroines. There is Wally the Tyrolean village girl, Fedora and Gloria, women of the nobility, the nun Angelica and two courtesans Magda and Stephana. There is Lodoletta a foundling, the upwardly mobile Manon, the music-hall performer Zazà, a factory worker Conchita and seamstress Mimì. Finally we are taken to the Far East for Liù a Chinese slave girl and Iris the lowly daughter of a blind man in Japan.

Renée Fleming provides a high level of artistic consistency across all the works on the disc. However, there are several tracks that I especially enjoyed. From Puccini’s Suor Angelica (1918) Fleming gives a memorable and quite moving performance as the nun Sister Angelica in her sorrowful lament Senza Mamma. In the body of this showpiece aria I detected some slight fluttering in the voice but the long held note at the conclusion is marvellously sung.

High drama is the order of the day in the aria Un di (ero piccina) from Mascagni’s Iris an opera rarely staged since its 1898 premiere in Rome. The heroine is Iris the astonishingly naive daughter of a high-minded blind man. Fleming sings beautifully her rather curiously worded text of the evil-eyed octopus creeping out from the vast, dead sea.

Puccini’s underrated 1917 masterpiece La rondine centres around heroine Magda de Civry, a courtesan. Magda’s act I aria Ore dolci e divine is as swish and elegant as a stroll in a fashionable Parisian park. From La bohème (1896) the aria Si mi chiamo Mimi is heart-rending and sung here with such loving affection.

In Leoncavallo’s rarely heard version of La bohème from 1897, Fleming conveys a swaggering lilt to the lovesick Mimi’s aria Musette svaria sulla bocca viva. A hidden gem is the tender aria Angioletto, il tuo nome? from Leoncavallo’s steamy 1900 operatic rarity Zazà with the heroine a French music-hall singer. As Zazà the assured Fleming’s encounter with the little daughter of her married lover would melt the stoniest of hearts.

From Puccini’s Manon Lescaut (1893), cruelly tormented and abandoned, emotions lies heavy in Manon’s set-piece Sola perduta, abandonata. Fleming’s intensely moving interpretation is almost too hard to bear. It is fascinating to hear the aria in this claimed world premiere recording of the composer’s original manuscript version. By contrast the Spanish dance rhythms including the sound of castanets in the aria Ier della fabbrica from Zandonai’s opera Conchita (1911) conjures up images of the heady atmosphere of flamenco.

In the aria Tutto tramonta from Fedora (1898) by Giordano the dying heroine Princess Fedora sings an achingly beautiful lament. This tear-jerking aria includes an off-stage child’s voice that greatly adds to the poignancy. Giordano’s Siberia (1903) is a neglected opera that includes the memorable traditional tune the Song of the Volga Boatmen. With astonishing rapture Fleming as the tragic courtesan Stephana sings No! Se un pensier… Nel suo amore rianimata one of the sweetest imaginable arias in the repertoire.

The final track of the disc is the celebrated quartet Bevo al tuo fresco sorriso from the second act of Puccini’s La rondine. Here Fleming and star tenor Jonas Kaufman are joined by soprano Barbara Vignudelli and tenor Paolo Cauteruccio (spelled incorrectly in the booklet). Puccini certainly indulges the listener in this sumptuous and moving love music with the quartet blending beautifully. It’s hard to better the description in the booklet of, “the listener wallowing in a love-struck ecstasy unsurpassed by Puccini.”

Well drilled and alert to the requirements of these scores the orchestra provide splendid accompaniment. The Decca engineers provide excellent sound quality with an especially impressive balance between singer, chorus and orchestra. The tracks are listed on the back of the jewel case but are not numbered. It’s a nuisance trawling inside the booklet to obtain this basic information. In addition I’m not sure how much handling the tissue-like paper in the booklet can stand.

Renée Fleming’s creamy vocals are stunning and in quite beautiful condition. Maybe the cream has thickened as I felt that I detected the development of a slightly richer edge to her timbre. Intelligent and accomplished she is incredibly controlled and effortlessly conveys the intense sentimentality of verismo. There are better communicators of the Italian language than Fleming but her rapt enthusiasm more than compensates. I hope it is not too long before I can hear Miss Fleming in a live production. This is a wonderful collection of arias from verismo heroines that is worthy of acclaim. It’s a shame that this Decca disc arrived too late for my list of 2009 Records of the Year.

Michael Cookson 

Track listing
1. Puccini: Senza Mamma from Suor Angelica
2. Mascagni: Un di (ero piccina) from Iris
3. Puccini: Ore dolci e divine from La rondine
with Saito Kaoru, Lucia Mencaroni, Barbara Vignudelli
4. Mascagni: Flammen perdonami! from Lodoletta
5. Catalani: Ne mai dunque avro pace? from La Wally
6. Puccini: Si. Mi chiamo Mimi from La bohème
7. Leoncavallo: Musette svaria sulla bocca viva from La bohème
8. Leoncavallo: Mimi Pinson, la biondinetta from La bohème
with Paolo Cautoruccio, Marco Calabrese, Saito Kaoru,
Annalisa Dessi, Carlos Gomez and Gilles Armani
9. Puccini: Addio… Donde lieta from La bohème
with Arturo Chacón-Cruz
10. Leoncavallo: Angioletto, il tuo nome? from Zazà
with Emma Latis
11. Puccini: Sola perduta, abandonata from Manon Lescaut
(original manuscript version - world premiere recording)
12. Zandonai: Ier della fabbrica from Conchita
13. Cilea: O mia cuna, fiorita from Gloria
14. Giordano: Tutto tramonta from Fedora
with Arturo Chacón-Cruz and Emma Latis
15. Puccini: Tu che di gel cinta from Turandot with Arturo Chacón-Cruz, Marco Calabrese and Barbara Vignudelli
16. Giordano: No! Se un pensier… Nel suo amore rianimata from Siberia
17. Puccini: Bevo al tuo fresco sorriso from La rondine with Jonas Kaufmann, Barbara Vignudelli and Paolo Cauteruccio
Renée Fleming, soprano
Coro e Orchestra Sinfonica di Milano, Giuseppe Verdi/Marco Armiliato