Long touted through her celebrated career as “America’s Soprano,” Renée Fleming’s career was international in scope and every bit as important in Europe as across the pond. Her most memorable role was arguably the Marschallin in Richard Strauss’s bittersweet comedy of manners Der Rosenkavalier, a story of love and loss set nostalgically in eighteenth-century Vienna during the reign of Empress Maria Theresa. A sagacious princess of 38, who also happens to be named “Marie-Thérèse” in the world of the opera, the Marschallin has resigned herself to the passage of time and its consequences for holding onto the vitality of young love. Fleming’s interpretation of the role evolved over the last two decades, becoming more nuanced as the singer herself interacted more and more with European aristocrats on whose mannerisms she could draw.
Fleming is now a bit older than the Marschallin, a fact I mention only for comparative purposes, but she, too, had a moment of resignation. In 2017, just before she embarked on her last run of Rosenkavaliers at New York’s Metropolitan Opera, Fleming announced that she would step back from her singing career before decline set in and critical comment began to focus on her shortcomings rather than her triumphs. Ever since, her stage appearances have been rare as she has admirably pursued opportunities in arts administration, consulting, directing, and the science behind the wellness of singing.
These are all worthy endeavors. But listening to her in an intimate recital on January 2, nearly five years after her semi-retirement, one has to wonder if she left too soon. The voice remains fully intact, with its signature rich middle register perfectly capable of ascending to sweetened high notes and descending into an effective lower register. The recital program ranged far and wide, encompassing early music, high Romanticism, verismo, expressionism, Golden Age Hollywood musicals, and contemporary music. Granted, we heard nothing from Strauss; none of the difficult Verdi roles Fleming took earlier in her career; nor her other signature role, the title part in Dvořák’s Rusalka; but the immense range of her talent was on full display and remains undiminished.
PHOTO: DECCA/TIMOTHY WHITE
Fleming opened with two Handel selections—“Calm thou my Soul” and “Endless Pleasure”—from the composer’s opera Semele. She conserves a mastery of the coloratura runs and delicious melismas memorable from her early career and deliveres them with nearly girlish allure. A brace of Fauré songs—“Les Berceaux” and “Au bord de l’eau”—challenged her with a deluge of artful French naturalism, and here, too, she was in top form. Moving along in the dreamy realm of the Romantic, her radiant approach to Edvard Grieg’s “Lauf der Welt” and “Zur Rosenzeit”—songs set to poems by Uhland and Goethe—perfectly captured the enthusiasms and disappointments of young romance. “Lauf der Welt,” or “Way of the World,” anticipated the Marschallin’s musings about the unfair nature of love and time explored in Strauss’s Rosenkavalier. The song’s depiction of a chance romantic encounter with an undefined dimension of consent – “I don’t ask, she doesn’t say yes/But she doesn’t say no, either” go the lyrics—also merited a commendably tongue-in-cheek “trigger warning,” which Fleming announced by observing that times have changed along with mores. The implication was that American audiences probably should not take the new Puritanical definitions of expressed consent too seriously and just enjoy the art, as Europeans still for the most part do. Marietta’s meditation on love and death from Korngold’s opera Die Tote Stadt also captured Fleming’s expressive gifts.
The second half of the program featured an even wider array of repertoire. “Musette svaria sulla bocca viva,” from Leoncavallo’s much less famous (than Puccini’s) version of La Bohème, was lively and artful, even if it offered little hope that the opera could ever replace Puccini’s much better-known version. The more familiar soprano set piece from Cilea’s Adriana Lecouvreur—“Io son l’umile ancella,” a rare admission that a star performer is merely a servant to art—came off less well, with some muddy notes, but was worth including. If Rosenkavalier is about a gracious surrender of love to youth, Cilea’s opera, in which a war hero abandons a princess for an actress only for the princess to take murderous revenge, points to the ugly consequences of unmastered passions.
Contemporary songs from Maria Schneider’s Winter Morning Walks are settings of poems by the one-time U.S. Poet Laureate Ted Kooser, a cancer sufferer whose condition forced him to take morning walks before the sun rose. Fleming delivered his musings with an aching simplicity anchored in hope—Kooser survived his illness, recovered fully, and remains alive today at the age of 82.
Broadway enjoyed a prominent place in the recital, as Fleming embraced the title number from The Sound of Music, here sung beautifully enough to make one forget how corny the musical truly is despite its setting post-Anschluß Austria. Harry Warren and Al Dubin’s “You’ll Never Know” gave a bluesy edge to the recital, reminding us that Fleming could have done as well in that genre as in opera. Andrew Lippa’s “The Diva” offered an amusing description of the typical singer’s life, even if hearing about budgets and mortgages dissipated some of the mystique.
Fleming encored with a gorgeous rendition of “O mio babbino caro,” the famous aria from Puccini’s short opera Gianni Schicchi. A mainstay of sopranos, it would be difficult to imagine a performer before the public today who could sing the aria better. As the applause continued, a second encore of “I Could Have Danced All Night” from Lerner and Lowe’s My Fair Lady, added to the concert’s intimate mood when Fleming invited the audience to sing along. Few declined, and the palpable excitement should serve as a clarion call for Fleming to return to stages around the world at the earliest opportunity.
Renée Fleming’s upcoming European dates:
6 April 2022 at Palais Garnier, Paris
9 April 2022 at Grand-Théâtre de Bordeaux, Bordeaux
12 April 2022 at Staatsoper Unter den Linden, Berlin
18 April 2022 at Kauno Žalgirio Arena, Kaunas, Lithuania
22 April 2022 at Royal Festival Hall, London