Cal Performances 2019-20 Review: Renée Fleming At Berkeley

Artistic longevity: America’s diva at 60

By Ching Chang
(Credit: Andrew Eccles)

Renée Fleming, a house prima donna assoluta, retired from the Met Opera at the height of her powers only a couple years ago, covered in glory while enjoying warm and enthusiastic public acclaim. Her final appearance on the Met’s stage as the Marschallin in the Robert Carsen production of Strauss’ “Der Rosenkavalier” was given the exalted confetti treatment at curtain calls, while the diva was generously applauded by both cast and audience.

For many, there was a feeling that perhaps the American soprano had retired a bit prematurely, but she soon announced that she was only retiring from the opera stage at the Met, and has since taken on many projects on the concert and recital stage, as well a prominent leading role in Broadway’s “Light In The Piazza” and “Carousel.”

A Return

After an absence of several years from the concert and opera stages in the San Francisco Bay Area, Renée Fleming returned to her local fans this past weekend, offering a wide ranging recital program at Berkeley’s Zellerbach Hall, accompanied by the refined playing of pianist Richard Bado.

Wearing a gorgeous body hugging silver graphite gown, it was with measured relief that many discovered that Fleming, now at 60 years of age, still has a voice that is warm and supple, and amply capable of delivering the melodic magic of her famous gleaming tone.

She did need “Suleika I (D. 720),” the first song, to warm up and get her bearings as she launched the initial Schubert set. The slow tempi sounded a bit tentative, and her sudden dips into middle voice pianissimos were nearly inaudible in the large, 2300 seat hall (respectably filled to about 80% capacity). Thankfully, she hit her diva stride in the second entry, the composer’s “Nur wer die Sehnsucht kennt” from “Lied der Mignon,” beautifully rendered with polish and gracious melodic arches, conveying an unerring sense of truth.

She rounded off the Schubert set with two contrasting miniatures, “Die Vögel, D. 691” and “Rastlose Liebe, D. 138,” making a delicious juxtaposition between elegant sarcasm and restless urgency.

She then spoke to the audience before the second set, affirming her love for the beauty of the French language, and launched into a ravishing rendition of Reynaldo Hahn’s “Si mes vers avaient des ailes,” sung with selfless abandon and generous fermatas that seemingly disappeared in a distant horizon.

Délibes’ “Les filles de Cadix,” which followed, had sunny rhythmic verve and vitality of an idealized Spain, only missing perhaps some of the castanets which some singers have incorporated into the performance of this song.

Fleming closed the first half of the evening with two selection by Franz Liszt. The first, “S’il est un charmant gazon” was exquisitely paced, with delicious lyrical blooms crowning the narrative, interspersed with heart-stopping dramatic pauses. The final Liszt offering was a less common version of the famous “Oh, quand je dors,” with a busier and more virtuosic pianistic accompaniment. While it allowed Richard Bodo excellent technique to shine in the accompaniment’s cascading chord sequences and arpeggiated passages, it seemed to compete a bit more with the singer, than the version most recital patrons are familiar with.

Part II

The soprano then returned from intermission with a turquoise ball gown with an asymmetric shoulder, and offered what was by far, the highlight of the evening: selections of Kevin Puts’ “Letters from Georgia,” about the famous painter Georgia O’Keefe as she writes to friends about her discovery of beauty of the American Southwest.

The two songs presented, “Introduction and Taos” and “Canyon,” depicted American tone painting at its most magnificent, capturing O’Keefe’s wonder as she contemplated the bright blazing sunlight, the vast open blue skies of the desert, and the simple beauty of pueblos and villages, and the sinewy quality of ageless canyons. The melodic construction often seemed to travel the expansive distances of the desert landscape, as the singer in O’Keefe’s voice reaches the exhilarating conclusion, “It is absurd the way I love this country!”

Fleming followed Puts’ “Letters” with Bernard Herrmann’s “I Have Dreamt,” Cathy’s solitary confessional narrative from “Wuthering Heights,” paired with the endless questioning of unrequited love in Lehar’s “Warum hast du mich wachgeküsst”  from “Friederike,” both selections sharing the poignant urgency reminiscent of Goethe’s lyrics in “Gretchen am Spinnrade,” as immortalized in song by Schubert. To lighten up a bit, she closed the set with a Viennese bon-bon, “Ich bin verliebt” from the operetta “Schön ist die Welt,” also from Léhar.

The only opera offering of the evening then came from André Previn’s “I Want Magic,” Blanche DuBois scena from “A Streetcar Named Desire,” which Fleming premiered at the San Francisco Opera some 22 years earlier. It was an incisive reading, which suggest the character has actually grown on her over the years. To give the audience a sample of her new Broadway pursuits, Renée Fleming then offered Rodgers and Hanmerstein’s evergreen favorite “The Sound of Music,” the theme song from the eponymous musical, rendered perhaps with a bit more lieder-ish complexity than necessary, but still effective.

The recital ended with Adam Guettel’s Fable from “The Light in the Piazza,” which Fleming will soon star in at the Los Angeles Opera. It showcased the soprano’s strengths to her great advantage, finding her in convincing interpretive commitment, from the firm dramatic low range, to the upbeat declamatory energy all the way to the climatic high notes.

At final curtain call, the audience showered her with appreciative applause, but Fleming only offered one encore, a reading of Richard Strauss’ “Morgen,” rendered with the utmost sincerity, which she dedicated the beloved and recently departed Jessye Norman.

The program evidenced that Renée Fleming’s instrument is still in excellent shape, capable of sustaining credible artistry. So it appears what some might have considered a premature departure from opera, was in fact this artist’s wise and prudent strategy of self-preservation, ensuring that she will remain artistically relevant for many years to come.


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