Metropolitan Opera Stars Live in Concert Review: Renée Fleming in Washington D.C.
America’s Diva Puts Forth a Memorable Recital From the Nation’s CapitalBy Chris Ruel
As Renée Fleming, “America’s Diva,” introduced the third to last piece in a program that ranged from Handel to Cantaloube to Harold Arlen, the beloved singer sighed deeply. It was a testament to the magic and beauty she had spun singing one of the standout numbers of her concert, “O mio babbino caro” from Puccini’s “Gianni Schicchi.” She sang the famous Puccini aria holding the A flat for nearly 15 seconds in sweet pianissimo. It was a goosebump-inducing quarter of a minute, as was most of the hour and 15-minute program, the second of the Metropolitan Opera Stars Live in Concert Series.
In the wind-up to the penultimate number, Harold Arlen’s “Over the Rainbow” — a piece that couldn’t be more timely — Fleming had this to say: “I want to remind you all that we’ve been very fortunate to share in the most antique artistic expression known to humankind, singing! And it’s safe to do at home, and it’s also very good to do for your health.”
The truth couldn’t have been more plainly, yet exquisitely spoken. Those watching were indeed very fortunate to have shared in the performance of arguably one of the best sopranos of our time. Fleming shone like the star she is with an unassailable tour de force concert.
The Met is now offering Fleming’s performance on-demand, and I highly suggest watching this iconic singer at her very best. Invite a few opera-curious (or opera-fearful) friends to join you at a virtual watch party. You can teach them to hoot and holler opera style because every piece deserves a rousing round of applause and bravas! For those who have never stepped foot in an opera house,
I’ll venture to say many know the name Renée Fleming and have heard her sing — whether it be the National Anthem at the Super Bowl or, on a more somber 0ccasion, the funeral of United States Senator, John McCain, at which she sang a heart-wrenching rendition of “Danny Boy.” Fleming’s performance of classic arias, as well as a few surprise numbers, will without a doubt enter and soothe hearts during this time of unrest and uncertainty.
Live from D.C.
The concert was live-streamed from Dumbarton Oaks, a historic estate in the Georgetown neighborhood of Washington D.C. The estate formerly served as the residence and garden of Robert Woods Bliss — an American diplomat, art collector, and philanthropist — and his wife, Mildred Barnes Bliss. Bliss co-founded the Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection and in 1940 the property was given to Harvard University. Fleming sang in the sumptuous Music Room, and is not the first powerhouse operatic singer to grace the space with her voice.
She joins the ranks of Leontyne Price and Joan Sutherland now having performed at the historic property. In the candlelit room lined with exquisite tapestries, intricately carved woodwork, inlaid wood floors, and gently arched doorways and windows, Fleming, accompanied by pianist, conductor, and director of Washington National Opera’s Cafritz Young Artist program, Robert Ainsley, put forth a dreamy concert that kicked off with a special piece, “And the People Stayed Home,” a poem penned by Kitty O’Meara at the beginning of the pandemic and put to music by composer John Corigliano. Fleming sang “And the people” acapella, the unaccompanied poignant words recounting what people did to occupy themselves as they hunkered down in their residences. With the days of being cooped up still fresh in all our minds, the opening number was a tear-jerker — a term that could apply to much of the program.
Fleming followed up with a piece from 300 years earlier, Handel’s “Calm thou my soul … Convey me to some peaceful shore” from “Alexander Balus,” an oratorio composed in 1747. The Handel meshed seamlessly with the preceding Corigliano piece, with both focusing upon healing.
The three-century jump exemplified one of Fleming’s most recognizable gifts; her ability to sing anything not just well, but with stunning beauty and unforgettable emotive power. “Come thou my soul…” wasn’t the only Handel on the menu. ”
To fleeting pleasures make your court” from “Samson,” and “Endless pleasure, endless love” from “Semele” were sung back-to-back, with the last a showcase of Fleming’s glorious Baroque style full of luscious ornamentation and punctuated by the soprano’s giddy, playful facial expressions of a woman in love. There was no question that Fleming took endless pleasure in this piece, her technical prowess set free to bounce and glide through intricate runs, her sound that of warbling of a bird singing with delight in the middle of summer. Thus ended the first set.
The concert’s host, soprano, Christine Goerke, introduced a short biographical film of Fleming, narrated by yet another star mezzo-soprano Susan Graham. Graham took the audience on a quick journey through Fleming’s life from her days as a child growing up in a household full of music. Both her mother and father were high school music teachers and singing was part of everyday life for Fleming.
After attending the State University of New York Potsdam as a voice major, Fleming went on to study at Eastman School of Music and Juilliard. In 1988 she won the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions singing the Song of the Moon aria from Dvořák’s “Rusalka.”
“It was the catalyst of my career,” stated Fleming in the pre-recorded segment. And though the Rusalka aria was not on the program, I recommend taking a listen to her singing the piece that started it all.
The short biography also highlighted the Met’s historic opening gala in 2008 with fully staged scenes from “La traviata,” Massenet’s “Manon,” and Richard Strauss’ “Capriccio.”
The second part of the program featured primarily French repertoire, beginning with “Si mes vers avaient des ailes” by Reynaldo Hahn. Here’s the kicker to this magnificent piece: Hahn wrote it at the age of 13. Unfortunately, whether there was a glitch with the Met’s technology or a temporary blip in my internet connection, the picture froze and the sound dropped for nearly 20 seconds.
Not to throw the Met under the bus, but I put the technical difficulty on the production side since the performance picked up right at the moment it cut out; there wasn’t the typical internet lag catch-up that occurs on the user end when such lapses happen. The panic-inducing drop — at least for me, covering the performance — was the only glitch during what was a superbly executed production.
The Hahn piece, full of arpeggiated chords, intriguing intervals, and dreamy lyrics, provided it with a sophistication that made it difficult to believe it was the product of a teenage mind, particularly in the hands of great artists such as Fleming and Ainsley.
The music of Hahn was succeeded by two works by Joseph Cantaloube, “Malrous qu’o uno fenno,” a folksong not part of his more famous “Chants d’ Auvergne” song cycle. This jaunty number featured a piano interlude that showcased Ainsley with the camera zooming in on the pianist’s fingers as they danced across the keys.
Fleming paid strict attention to her accompanist, more so than at any point in the concert, and for good reason; Ainsley, upon finishing his intermezzo, had a page-turn just as Fleming picked up the vocal line. The feat was effected flawlessly. Fleming wrapped the number with the song’s chorus “Tradèra, ladèri, dèrèro, ladèra, ladèri, dèra” with a delightful, sliding shout of joy.
Sticking with Cantaloube, Fleming moved on to one of the highlights of her performance, “Baïlèro,” the best-known song within the composer’s “Chants d’Auvergne.” This soothing pastoral filled with heavenly arpeggios was cut in half for Fleming’s concert performance. I understand the choice. A seven-plus-minute piece, even one as atmospheric as “Baïlèro,” would be a tad long, so performing a foreshortened version was entirely appropriate.
Fleming rounded out the second set with “Adieu, notre petitte table” from Massenet’s “Manon.” Here, Fleming inhabited the doomed heroine as she sang of her love for the Chavalier, recounting the time the two spent at their little table, drinking wine, and talking as lovers do; but, as Fleming stated at the close of the piece, “… all Hell was about to break loose” in the opera. “Adieu” stood in sharp contrast to soporific “Baïlèro” with Fleming flying full force into the piece with all its indecision and poignant recollection of happy times. Only Massenet and Fleming could take an ode to a simple table and turn it into gold spun on staves. And, with that, we bid adieu to the second set.
The cut to Goerke in the control room revealed the music had deeply touched Fleming’s colleague, as the near breathless Wagnerian thanked her fellow soprano for her brilliant, moving performance.
The second pre-recorded segment featured the final scene from Tchaikovsky’s “Eugene Onegin,” as sung by Fleming and the late, celebrated baritone, Dmitri Hvorostovsky. The concluding confrontation between Onegin and Tatyana is a duet in grand style, but the voices mingle only twice, and fleetingly so. Tatiana, along with the Marschallin in “Der Rosenkavalier” became known as Fleming’s signature roles.
The interpolation of “Onegin’s” finale was a nice touch and provided the at-home audience a chance to see Fleming interacting with an artist of equal power. The clip was a tribute to two opera stars as bright as the Sputnik chandeliers hanging in the Met.
Fleming started the third set with Richard Strauss (we know where this is headed!), referring to him as her “desert island composer.” The aforementioned role of the Marschallin in Strauss’ “Der Rosenkavalier” was Fleming’s favorite, and one she retired in 2017. Fleming, in the lead up to her Strauss selection, stated, “She [the Marschallin] embodies the complexity of a real woman… in this very famous monologue of hers towards the end of Act one, she’s not only thinking about the passing of time and all of the changes in life, but she’s also finding her moral compass.”
However, before Fleming sang the monologue she spoke of, she introduces the audience to an aria by Erich Korngold, “Ich soll ihn niemals, niemals mehr sehn” from “Die Kathrin.” “Kathrin” is not an opera often produced, and is in fact, quite unfamiliar to many. The aria is Kathrin’s “letter aria” as she writes of her love of a soldier on the front lines of World War I. Of all the pieces in the program, it was this one that didn’t hold much interest, especially knowing what was to follow.
The structure of the program, moving from the English repertoire to the French, and finally, to the German and Italian, demonstrated Fleming’s stunning range developed over a magnificent career. I would have liked to hear the full rendition of Cantaloube’s “Baïlèro,” rather than this aria by Korngold which, though performed splendidly, felt like filler. If there’s a set-up, there should be a pay-off. Fleming set up “Da geht er hin” from “Rosenkavalier” only to delay the pay-off with an aria from an obscure opera.
The overture to “Der Rosenkavalier” is rife with sexuality, with many pointing to the bellowing horns as the moment of climax between the Marschallin and her young lover, Octavian. Korngold’s “Ich soll” was a bit of foreplay I’d be happy to skip in order to get on with the fireworks.
And when she got to the “Rosenkavalier,” she proved why this was her role. Though a fourth set remained, this was Fleming’s moment, the apex of the concert, and she reveled in it. Fleming will forever be associated with the Marschallin, and any opportunity she gets to sing “Da geht” live will bring back bittersweet memories of her on the Met stage as the elegant, though aging, wife of a gallant field marshall, who while longing for her youthfulness to return, understands all good things must end, even her liaisons dangereuses with the young Octavian.
Fleming’s tone was forceful, confident, and solid. Like her channeling the spirit of Manon in “Adieu, notre pettite table,” the Marschallin was reborn in the Music Room of Dumbarton Oaks — all that were missing were the costume and the set. Though convention may have held her at the piano’s side, it did not keep Fleming from using her acting chops when it came to expressing the feelings of her favorite character.
The weightiness of the Marschallin’s aging is gorgeously underscored with weeping as the Marschallin asks “How can such a thing happen? How can the dear Lord do this when I am still the same person?” Fleming let a little laugh escape her lips, signaling the Marschallin’s decision to no longer fight the receding tide of youth, but to choose how she will age — it is the attitude regarding the later seasons of life that matters.
While it’s impossible to get into the head of anyone, understanding Strauss’ influence on Fleming’s career, I was left wondering if similar thoughts to those of the Marschallin went through her mind when deciding to pass the role along to another soprano. Eventually, all singers retire a role, but it’s how they do it that sets apart the greats. Fleming left the Marschallin on a high note — no pun — and for that, she will be forever remembered as the Marschallin of Marschallins.
That was followed by a highlight reel, that while nostalgic, felt equally disorienting as it did not Follow any chronological order of her Met career.
The Final Set
After the highlight reel, the final set began with an amuse-bouche, “Musette svaria sulla bocca viva,” from “La bohème.” Fleming then performed “Io son l’umile ancella” from Cilea’s “Adriana Lecouvreur.”
The programming choice signaled a shift back into the dreamscapes of the first and second sets. Her turn at “Io son” during this live concert was controlled and natural. At no point did her voice sound mismatched for the aria. She excelled in both the lower and upper registers with no straining and no fatigue. Keep in mind, singers have been off the stage for five months or more, and keeping their voices in performance shape isn’t easy. Even top-rated artists such as Fleming need to deal with the economic, psychological, physical fallout, and crisis fatigue that has set in around the world.
For Fleming to take on heavy-hitting pieces such as “Da geht” and “Io son” late in the program and after having an inordinate amount of time off, is a testament to her technique. Which brings us to one of opera’s greatest hits for the soprano voice, “O mio babbino caro,” from Puccini’s “Gianni Schicchi.”
As mentioned at the top of this review, Fleming took the old standard and made it fresh. Because the piece is one performed by countless singers, making comparisons between how one singer takes it on versus another is fairly easy. Fleming’s preferred tempo is languid, drawing out the notes with strict attention to shifts in dynamics. Her approach is breathy with a light touch while remaining filled with the angst of a young lover.
Fleming finished her afternoon of song with an ever so touching, timely and emotional “Over the Rainbow,” by Harold Arlen. Like “O mio babbino caro,” Fleming took her own direction with Arlen’s music, arranged by Rob Mathes.
It was the end of the concert, and she was ready to give the audience some reassurance that, in a topsy-turvy world where it often feels like there’s not a lick of solid ground on which to stand, this won’t always be the case. “When all the world is a hopeless jumble and the raindrops tumble all around, heaven opens a magic lane.”
Fleming opened a magic lane for those who watched — and will watch in the coming days. But wait! There was one more piece. After opening the way for hope, Fleming bid her audience goodnight with Brahms’ “Wiegenlied,” Op. 49, No. 4, better known by all as Brahms’ “Lullaby.”
I’ll use the word I’ve come back to time and again to describe portions of the program: dreamy.