Who knows if we will ever hear Renée Fleming take to the opera stage to perform a recognized role again? Her departure from the Met Opera stage last May in “Der Rosenkavalier” seems, to this point, as the end of Fleming the opera star to make way for Fleming, a bigger star in a wider range of musical repertoire.
Because the truth is that since that famed day in May, the soprano’s profile has arguably grown far wider and bigger than it ever was before. She appeared in two movie soundtracks, both top Oscar contenders (and the eventual winner). She will be heard again on movie screens soon enough when she becomes Julianne Moore’s vocal doppelgänger in the upcoming film “Bel Canto.”
And then there’s “Carousel.”
A Bigger Stage
She had already shown audiences what she could do on Broadway in 2015 when she appeared in “Living on Love.” But this was something on a different level, the stakes greater considering that this was a revival of a beloved musical.
Everyone knew about the soprano’s involvement in the Rogers and Hammerstein musical long before her departure from the opera stage, but it’s actually here now. No longer just an idea or concept.
It’s the real thing. And so is Fleming.
Taking on the character Nettie Fowler, a mother-figure of sorts to the emotionally unstable characters around her, Fleming scores an unquestionable success.
During the performance on Saturday, April 14, 2018, the soprano’s entrance in the third scene was met with rousing applause that stopped the show for a minute or so. It was pretty clear that the audience at hand knew exactly who Fleming was and wanted to give her a massive show of appreciation. That applause was superseded at the close of the evening when the famed diva came out for her final bow.
In between, she was at her very best.
A Formidable Portrayal
Fleming hasn’t always been the most consistent of actresses. She is always gracious onstage in every role she takes on, but there were times where she didn’t seem like she dug much deeper from a physical and acting standpoint. That isn’t to say that she couldn’t be compelling because there are certain performances that bear out how poignant and powerful she could be. “Capriccio” and “Arabella” would be exhibit A and even Verdi’s “Otello” also displayed some of her most arresting work on the stage in all facets of her craft.
She’s arguably better in “Carousel,” legendary director Jack O’Brien getting the very best out of her. She retains that elegance onstage, but there’s so much more. Her opening number “June is Bustin’ Out All Over” had a sense of playful freedom, the soprano just having a grand old time moving about the stage. Her diction was surprisingly not always on point here, but it was the only blip that she had the entire night and she just got better and better as things went on.
With the story moving towards its tragic denouement, Fleming’s role grew as she took on the motherly role to Jessie Mueller’s Julie Jordan. Fleming’s “You’ll Never Walk Alone” was arguably one of the most beautifully rendered numbers of the evening. Wrapping up Mueller in her arms and standing still in this gentle but tender pose, the soprano let her voice ring out gloriously throughout the Imperial Theater. Fleming may be closing in on 60, but here she sounded as fresh as ever and as emotionally riveting as ever. She soothed with each caressing phrase, but you could feel the pain in her voice as well. Through it all, you could feel these two conflicting emotions, a desire to sooth but also a desire to cry, playing out in her character; it added vulnerability to Nettie while ultimately showing her a potent figure ready for the difficult travails ahead.
A Note on the Other Great Artists
Fleming’s main interactions throughout the show are with Mueller’s Julie and the two were a formidable duo, with Mueller imbuing Julie with a powerful arc throughout the night. We meet her as a shy and innocent girl and walk away feeling captivated by her strong and growing woman. In fact, by the last scene, you see Nettie’s own strong will reflected in Julie, bringing their relationship to full fruition. Lindsay Mendez was formidable comic relief as Carrie Pipperidge, Alexander Gemignani was both a rough man and a tender teddy bear as Enoch Fowler, and Amar Ramasar was an imposing and malevolent fiend as Jigger Craigin.
But among the other actors, the night belonged to Joshua Henry, whose Billy Bigelow immersed the audience in a tragic hero’s journey. We loved his confidence and yet grimaced at his crude qualities. We felt the real struggle of his turn down a dark path and could feel the bittersweetness of his ultimate redemption. He also sang like a god throughout the night.
The production by O’Brien moved with great agility and grace throughout the night, transitioning from one scene to the next seamlessly. Just like the great diva, Renée Fleming has transitioned from the opera stage to the Broadway stage.