with Hartmut Höll at the Concertgebouw.
Renee Fleming, the great dame of sopranos, is in town for a Liederabend with her long-time piano partner Hartmut Höll. The wonderful Concertgebouw is sparkling in all its glory, and the main hall is (for a Liederabend) remarkably full. Of the 2000 sold seats, roughly 1800 are occupied. While the evening features a block of classical Schubert and Brahms at the beginning, it really shows off the astounding range of Fleming’s voice, which now goes from classical up to Broadway and film scores. We end with Lehar, musical and operetta.
Fleming only sang two lyrical soprano roles in opera during her long career: Micaela in Carmen (which she only sung once) and her world-famous Marschallin in Rosenkavalier. Indeed, tonight her voice seems most suited to the lyric, operatic pieces, including the Fleming classics Song to the Moon from Rusalka and the Musetta’s Lips aria from Leoncavallo’s La Boheme. The evidence of why she has become such an undeniable star of the opera scene is freely on display, with the high A’s and C’s still as foot-perfect as ever. Sure, she does not hold the notes as long and in as strong a manner as she used to, her voice is now that of an opera veteran. She has a unique instinctive where to put the accents, the crescendo and the vibrati, that can only come from the completed maturing process of one of the world’s greatest singers. I wonder if she would ever pick up Mahler’s Lied von der Erde now. Since hearing it with von Otter I always feel that an experienced, aged mezzo gives that piece a unique special touch.
But the first half begins with some true German classics. Fleming enters the stage in a fabulous grey shining gown by Rubin Singer and begins with Schubert. Gesang (An Sylvia), Im Abendrot, and the world-famous Die Forelle are all Schubert classics, but specifically the final two songs give the evening a remarkable kick off. While In Abendrot is Fleming’s lyrical voice, instinct for slow tempi and perfect German intonation at its finest, Die Forelle shows how Fleming has also developed her showmanship in her voice. Her singing has a liberated use of coloratura, of vibrati and (together with Hartmut Hölls exemplary accompaniment) of accelerandi and sostenuto, creating a Forelle that is indeed as free-flowing as the little river in which the fish struggles.
This is followed by four Brahms songs, where specifically Mainnacht and the world-famous Wiegenlied shine. Fleming forms her words carefully here, never pandering to excessive emotion. She recognises that Brahms’ potential is best realised when the emotions are not excessive, when the vibrato is not etched out to the extreme, when the music simply is allowed to exist unto itself.
The next group of songs are modern American music by Kevin Puts. Composed by Fleming herself, they are probably the most challenging songs for the listener tonight. Their colours remind of John Adams, and Fleming’s text work is more expressive here. She introduces these songs on the microphone herself, is clearly emotionally invested and gives them her own special musical touch.
The Fleming proceeds to her film singing career, where she has earned particular acclaim for singing in Oscar winning films such as The Shape of Water and Three Billboards Outside Evving Missouri. Even though there are some textual difficulties in the Villa-Lobos Bachianas Brasileiras, this section features one of the highlights of the night in Friedrich von Flotow’s ‘Tis the Last Rose of Summer. This song was put to exemplary use in Three Billboards, perfectly expressing the emotional loss and deep-south melancholy of the world in that film. Fleming first describes how she didn’t even know the film had licensed this track of her, discovering that she was in the film without being told at all. Then her voice rises to stellar heights and exerts remarkable emotion, the public in the Concertgebouw is particularly warm in their applause after this song. The Song to the Moon from Rusalka rounds out the first half of the concert, with Hartmut Höll’s nuanced accompaniment shining particularly bright here. The Nezhasni, nezhansi! at the end are particularly emotional and make a lovely send-off for the interval.
After that interval, only Italian and broadway are left. After an interesting expedition into Turandot and the only slight weak point of the evening, the Italian orchestral songs by Refice and Tosti, Fleming concludes with her all-time hit from Leoncavallo’s Boheme and selections from Broadway. Having made her debut on Broadway in Carussel this (and being nominated for a Tony of course), Fleming demonstrates she has a sense for the drama of Broadway without it ever becoming cheesy-sappy. This is when the listeners truly realise the great arc that Fleming is spanning in her selections tonight. From the great classical successes of her career, to a new artistic outlook which has materialized over the last several years.
Fleming ends the evening with two operetta hits by Franz Lehár and two encores that each brings the audience to its feet: Summertime from Gerschwin’s Porgy and Bess and (finally, to the delight of all 1800 people in the Concertgebouw), the quintessential Fleming song, which she “loves to sing” as she tells the public: O Mio Babbino Caro from Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi. I heard her sing this at the Berlin Waldbühne with the Berlin Philharmonic in 2010, and ten years later her voice still has that outstanding lyricism, staying power and commitment. This was Fleming at her very best. She is simply all you could ask for in a singer and she still has that special Fleming-timbre. Attributing a specific timbre to a specific singer only happens with true greats, say Christa Ludwig, Anne-Sophie von Otter or Waltraud Meier. And Fleming deserves every bit of that attribution. Seeing and hearing one of the all-time greatest singers (in the second half in a blue Oscar De La Renta, for those who care) was a true privilege. Yannik Eisenaecher, 7th February 2019
Yannik Eisenaecher is the publisher of the blog FreshEarsClassics