Mesa Arts Center 2020 Review: Renée Fleming in Recital

Legendary Soprano Delivers Love Songs For Valentine’s Day

By Maria Nockin
(Credit: Timothy White for Decca)

Wearing a shiny taupe gown that reflected minimized images of the lights above, soprano Renée Fleming and pianist Gerald Martin Moore entered to applause that showed they have fans in this desert city.

They opened with a Valentine befitting February 14th: George Frideric Handel’s enticing “Bel Piacere è Godere.” Fleming followed its fast, tricky coloratura with a smooth, meditative rendition of the composer’s “Ombra Mai Fu” in which she exhibited superb breath control. 

There were no titles in this theater. The recital program listed the songs and gave some background about each composer but did not print or translate the song texts. Although Fleming’s diction was excellent, even when she sang in English it was difficult to catch every word.

Part I

Having omitted a third Handel aria, she skipped down the program page to a Liszt group. Starting with “Freudvoll und Leidvoll,” Liszt’s songs gave Moore his chance to shine and he played the composer’s virtuosic accompaniments with consummate grace. Fleming pursued a languid pace in “Über allen Gipfel ist Ruh” and her final diminuendo was exquisite.

The artists quickened their pace with a dramatic reading  of “Im Rhein, im schönen Strome.” Here, the singer’s character sees the Cologne Cathedral and its art work in the rushing waves and, again, Fleming produced one of her most affecting diminuendos. 

At this point Fleming replaced songs by Claude Debussy, Reynaldo Hahn, and Léo Delibes with Desdemona’s final scene from Giuseppe Verdi’s “Otello.” Beginning softly and with that excellent breath control previously noted, she sang of the green willow that could be her decoration as she lay dead in the morning. With the sweetness of her tones and a few dramatic gestures, Fleming created the picture of a domestic violence victim’s desperation as she went on to sing a pleading, prayerful “Ave Maria” and bid good-bye to her maid. 

With an eye to ending the first half of the program on a happier note, Fleming sang an aria is from Ruggero Leoncavallo’s rarely heard version of “La Bohème,” a work that is quite different from Giacomo Puccini’s popular opera. Fleming rendered Mimi’s lilting aria about Musette, “Musette svaria sulla bocca viva,” in a bouncy, cabaret style more reminiscent of Johann Strauss’s “Die Fledermaus” than of the usual “La Bohème.” It was the perfect way to end the first half of the recital.



Part II

After the intermission, Fleming returned in a silk gown of softly grayed plum and grape tones that included a ruffled georgette wrap. She and Moore performed three Impressionistic songs that Debussy wrote to the poetry of Paul Verlaine. The first two were in the contemplative mode that the singer does so well and the third was brighter and faster in a more joyful mood. 

At this point she returned to the program for modern works in English, offering songs from composer Anders Hillborg and librettist Mark Strand’s “Strand Settings.” “Dark Harbor XXXV, The Sickness of Angels,” followed by “Dark Harbor XI, A Long Time Has Passed” paint an oral landscape with splashes of shimmering gold edging a cloud-rimmed sunset. There is mystery, too, as the poet speaks of relationships. Fleming has recorded these pieces and she was perfectly at home with them as many Mesa patrons enjoyed them for the first time. 

A devout Anglophile, composer Bernard Herrmann wrote an opera on Emily Brontë’s towering novel “Wuthering Heights” which was not staged until after his death. From this work, Fleming sang Cathy’s melancholy aria “I have dreamt” with tonal opulence and compelling sentiment and followed it with a rousing rendition of  Leonard Bernstein’s “I feel Pretty” from “West Side Story.” From the film score of “The Shape of Water,” she sang Harry Warren and Mack Gordon’s love song, “You’ll never know just how much I love you,” which reminded the audience that it would still be Valentine’s Day until midnight. 

Fleming and Moore ended the happy occasion with the song, “C’era una Volta la Terra Mia,” from Ennio Morricone’s score for “Once upon a Time in the West.” It was a beautiful finale as this song is strongly rooted in the Italian classical tradition. I would like to hear more of Morricone’s music sung and played live. It should have a place in the recital repertoire. 

After several huge rounds of applause, Fleming revealed that Valentine’s Day was also her birthday. She got copious floral bouquets and the audience got encores, beginning with a slow and sentimental “O mio Babbino Caro.” For her second encore, Fleming invited the audience to sing along with “I Could Have Danced All Night,” a song most of the patrons knew from Frederick Loewe and Alan Jay Lerner’s “My Fair Lady.” The finale was Fleming and Moore’s rendition of “Danny Boy,” a song that has more resonance with the Irish-Americans in New York than with the Spanish and English speakers of Arizona.

No matter, this audience loved Fleming and applauded for several more minutes until the bright lights came on. 


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