CD Review: Renée Fleming’s ‘Broadway’

The Soprano’s Crossover Album Is a Hit Overall

By Freddy Dominguez

I’ve been listening to Renée Fleming and thinking about the recently deceased Montserrat Caballé.  To my ears, Fleming is the only active soprano whose voice can match the ravishing beauty of the Spanish diva’s. Neither singer is beyond criticism, but if voices were tactile, these are the kinds that would be behind thick glass in museums.

Fleming, though, is unique among opera stars in her ability to render that beauty credibly in non-classical genres. Crossover albums generally showcase opera singers singing non-classical works operatically. Again, I think of Caballé and her easily parodied, over the top duets with Freddie Mercury. At best, the results can be entertaining novelties, at worst plain embarrassing.

Thorough Integrity

Fleming, however, has produced “popular” albums of thorough integrity. Albums like “Haunted Heart,” “Dark Hope,” and more recently some Björk tracks on “Distant Light,” have been recorded with the utmost respect for non-classical forms and their sensibilities. Often sung deep in a contralto range and leisurely paced, these projects have shown Fleming to be an excellent jazz-infused performer.

I prefer Renée Fleming the opera singer to Fleming the jazz singer, but the versatility is nonetheless astonishing. This is particularly true of “Broadway” where we hear many voices attuned to the songs being performed.  The diversity of sound and styles is a testament to the album’s deep exploration of musical theater traditions from different eras– from the 30’s till today. Though united by Fleming’s consistently restrained inclination and her velvety voice, each track is nonetheless its own world. This, in itself, is an awesome achievement and worthy of attention by anyone interested in the art of song.  

With a Bang

The record starts with a bang.  Adam Guettel’s “Fable” from “The Light in the Piazza” is sung with immaculately crisp diction and a warm sound ascending with conviction into operatic heights.

Cole Porter’s “Down in the Depths of the 90th Floor” from  “Red, Hot, and Blue” is more intimate and jazzy, showing off an amber tone that stretches and congeals at the end of phrases.

Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein’s “The Sound of Music” is nuanced with moments of lush expansive sound and others direct and to the point.  

Maury Yeston’s “Unusual Way” from “Nine” is drenched in dramatic urgency that never edges into exaggeration. Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Tell Me on a Sunday” from “Song and Dance,” a song I’ve never found convincing, comes to life with Fleming. With colloquial ease and simplicity, it sounds and feels like an honest take on the insecurities of love and not schmaltz.

Some Bombs Though

There are some serious bombs here too. I doubt anyone could save the saccharine medley from “Into the Woods” and “South Pacific.” In this track, Fleming is joined by Leslie Odom, Jr. of “Hamilton” fame. Both sing like angels, but that doesn’t do much to enliven songs so larded with sentimental kitsch about the importance of parental guidance: “Children will listen” and “You’ve Got to be Taught.”

Benj Pasek and Justin Paul’s  “So Big So Small” from “Dear Evan Hansen” is musically trivial and not particularly well-served by Fleming’s careful take. Only a grittier performance of this song might make it work outside of its original dramatic context.

I wish the album as a whole would have been more interestingly paced. It would have benefited from just a little more energy, some more aggressive mood shifts, and maybe a one or two more tracks that truly soared. Given that the project is so closely linked to Fleming’s winning stint as Nettie Fowler in “Carousel,” “You’ll Never Walk Alone” would have been great here, even if it is already on the “Carousel” cast album. Maybe a track or two could have been there just for the fun, something more comedic or ironic. Fleming as Ethel Merman would have added some levity to the project. But maybe Fleming is too tasteful for this. She is most at home, and frankly better, with music that harnesses silvery elegance over red-hot passion or abandon. 

This is really a quibble about an excellent album. Listen to the last track and all will seem right with the world. The jazzy take on Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein’s “Everything You Are” from “Very Warm for May” is sublime. Her voice takes us to the deepest part of intimacy. Fleming sings with tonal luxury and she indulgently pushes the vocal line as far as it can go. She lets us marvel at vocal splendor evocative of a love that “trembles on the brink of a lovely song.”


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