Renee Fleming and the Seattle Symphony: Viva la Diva

Both fans and detractors found support for their views of soprano Renee Fleming in her curiously programmed star turn.
Crosscut archive image.

Soprano Renee Fleming. (Decca Classics)

Both fans and detractors found support for their views of soprano Renee Fleming in her curiously programmed star turn.

Maybe the golden age of the diva isn't such a bygone glory after all. True, sopranos like Nellie Melba and Mary Garden had enough cachet in that legendary era for celebrity chef Escoffier to concoct Peach Melba and Pears Mary Garden in their honor. But Renée Fleming, who appeared Thursday night, May 17, with the Seattle Symphony at Benaroya Hall, has inspired a dessert called "la Diva Renée" from master chef Daniel Boulud. An iris bears her name, and, as the program reminded us, Fleming is a familiar face in such cultural bellwethers as People magazine. Said program also contained a full-page Rolex ad featuring the glamorous soprano, along with the information that the evening's gown was designed by John Galliano for Dior. (Just how many product placements can be worked into a concert evening with one of today's reigning divas?) But we hardly need the marketing machine in full overdrive to appreciate that Fleming's artistry is one of a kind, with a combination of incredible technical control, emotional vividness and presence, and sheer incandescent beauty of sound. And - the true mark of a diva - Fleming has her share of detractors, who become just as scathing in their dismissal of her well-known mannerisms as her fans bask in adoration. In her Seattle gig - one leg on a brief U.S.-Canada tour before she embarks on her summer engagements - Fleming offered numerous instances of what both camps tend to latch onto. The program took quite a while to get into gear. Music director Gerard Schwarz began with Rossini's Overture to L'Italiana in Algeri. Anyone turned off by the piece from Seattle Opera's lackluster production last fall found no reason to warm to it here. Accents were heavy and awkward, the staple Rossini crescendos lacked fizz. Then Fleming emerged, resplendent indeed in the above-mentioned Dior ensemble: a mermaid-y fantasy encrusted with shimmeringly reflective mosaics and accompanied by an aqua-teal wrap of diaphanous silk. Hers was what is called an "entrance." She sang "Bel raggio lusinghier" from Rossini's opera seria Semiramide. Fleming's coloratura burbled like a champagne fountain, but her interjected breaths and sobs felt unconvincing. Some of her normally impeccable intonation came within a hair's breadth of being flat. Filling out the rest of the concert's first half was music of Richard Strauss. Here both Schwarz and Fleming came much more clearly - and satisfyingly – into their element. The program was punctuated with instrumental selections, and the segue into Strauss was a symphonic fragment from Die Liebe der Danae ("The Love of Danae"), his penultimate opera. The story originated with Hugo von Hofmannsthal and involves one of those delicious conflations typical of the poet: the (otherwise) unrelated legend of King Midas mated with the myth of Jupiter's seduction of Danae in the form of golden rain. The opera wasn't even performed till after Strauss's death; the selection on hand was a miniature synthetic tone poem extracted from the score by conductor Clemens Krauss. Schwarz has an instinctive feel for this late-Strauss ripeness (whoever observed that Straussian harmonic motion sounds like Wagner at 45 rpm hit it right on the head). He coaxed a warmly lyrical glow, with lovely inner lines from the violas and impressive, organ-like swelling from the entire orchestra. When Fleming returned, it was to perform Arabella's final scene from the eponymous 1932 opera - Strauss's last full collaboration with Hofmannsthal (Fleming will undertake the role this summer in Zurich). Over the past few years, an evolving richness of color and depth in the middle-to-low range has been apparent in Fleming's sumptuous palette. She used it to luminous effect for this scene (where one of Hofmannsthal's trademark symbols, a glass of water, becomes the agent of an epiphany of reconciliation). Then came two of Strauss's fully orchestrated lieder, the serene "Morgen" and "Zueignung," whose spirit of tripping joy Fleming made intoxicating to hear. Principal horn player John Cerminaro took the spotlight downstage in place of Fleming for Emmanuel Chabrier's "Larghetto for Horn." His playing was all liquid beauty, and it brought to mind comparisons with how singers approach phrasing. Still, what an odd interlude - why pick this inconsequential bit of orchestral fluff from Chabrier when Fleming, there in the wings, could have been delivering "Depuis le jour"? Perhaps it was meant to set the French mood for the two Massenet arias that followed (both from Thaïs, a role Fleming has recorded): "L'amour est une vertu rare" and "Dis-moi que je suis belle." But the orchestra was too weighty for this idiom – ditto in Puccini's I crisantemi for string orchestra, which sounded more like a Mahler elegy than a young Italian's experiment with string textures (the piece is famous from its use in the score to the Jack Nicholson film Prizzi's Honor). Fleming meanwhile played up the voluptuous texture of her voice to evoke Massenet's beautiful Egyptian courtesan. At times in the Massenet, but most clearly in the short Puccini set concluding the concert, you got a snapshot of what is at once a key asset of Fleming's art and her Achilles heel. She freights each detail of the musical line with emotional arabesques to such an extent that it can become overloaded. "O mio babbino caro" is one of her signature arias, and she milked it with undeniably exquisite, pinpoint shades of phrasing and dynamics - but the utter simplicity of the character singing got lost. Her "Vissi d'arte" from Tosca verged on perfection - until Fleming upset the spell cast by playing to the gallery and peppering her final line with affected sobs. Three encores followed for the enraptured, sold-out audience: another Strauss song ("Cäcilie"), "Summertime" from Porgy and Bess (with deep growls that would give Ewa Podles a run for her money), and Harold Arlen's immortal "Over the Rainbow," nearly clouded over by the soupy, Harry Mancini-esque arrangement.


Please support independent local news for all.

We rely on donations from readers like you to sustain Crosscut's in-depth reporting on issues critical to the PNW.


About the Authors & Contributors