I shuddered when I heard that Renée Fleming — who has never possessed the largest voice in the soprano game — had chosen the Kimmel Center’s Verizon Hall for her Philadelphia recital debut. The cavernous space would be no one’s ideal venue for an intimate song recital. Despite fabulous acoustics throughout, the 2,500-seat auditorium can produce a distancing effect that leaves even prime orchestra seats feeling miles from the stage.
I needn’t have worried. Known for her personal charm and disarming charisma, Fleming seduced the well-sold house before singing a note. Looking genuinely surprised by the standing ovation that greeted her first entrance, the diva flashed a megawatt smile and reached for a microphone tucked discreetly inside the grand piano. “Save another one of those for the end,” she beamed.
The two-hour program proceeded with the kind of coziness one might expect at a piano bar. Fleming’s full lyric soprano, still lush and easily produced at 58, travelled effortlessly throughout the concert hall, buoyed by Inon Barnatan’s sensitive accompaniment. Her musical selections alternated between song literature and aria — the former dispatched with the right amount of understatement, the latter retaining an appropriate level of grandeur.
An operatic temperament
Although Fleming clearly loves art songs, she remains an opera singer first. She seemed most comfortable when she could lose herself in the world of a character, a fact evident in the recital’s closing section: two extended scenas from Richard Strauss’s Ariadne auf Naxos. Fleming has sung Ariadne only once in a fully staged production, but she displayed a clear understanding of the title character’s melancholy, almost maudlin comportment.
In “Es gibt ein Reich” (“There is a kingdom”), the abandoned and forlorn Ariadne sings of her desire to leave earth for the peaceful, perfect land of the dead. Fleming’s voice built to a state of ecstatic rapture as she described how Hermes, the messenger of the underworld, would deliver her to “the silent cave that will become my grave.” She deployed a rock-solid low A-flat on the German word Totenreich — literally, “the kingdom of the dead” — that suggested the descent to Hades itself.
Closing a chapter
Elsewhere, Fleming highlighted arias from two of her most frequent operatic roles: the title courtesan of Massanet’s Thaïs, and Blanche Dubois, from André Previn’s A Streetcar Named Desire. She turned “Ç’est Thaïs, l’idole fragile” (“It is Thaïs, the fragile idol”), usually a parting duet sung by Thaïs and her lover Nicias, into an elegant solo air. Given that Fleming has coyly suggested her imminent retirement from opera in recent interviews, the aria’s focus on a woman ending one chapter of her life and embracing another had an added sense of poignancy.
Blanche’s “I can smell the sea air” concerns that other unavoidable end — death. Finally unraveled by cruelty and disillusionment, she imagines being “buried at sea / dropped overboard / sewn up in a clean, white shroud.” Fleming, who premiered the role of Blanche 20 years ago, has always sung Previn’s unabashedly lyrical music beautifully, but she now mines the text for an even greater level of haunted meaning. A chill shot through me as she described Blanche’s eternal rest in “an ocean as blue / as my first love’s eyes.”
A Previn premiere
The evening also occasioned the world premiere of six songs from “Lyrical Yeats,” which Previn composed specifically for Fleming. As with Streetcar, fleeting youth and encroaching mortality heavily influence the cycle. Fleming showed great interpretive skill with “A Song,” a barely accompanied ode to a rich mind trapped inside a failing body. The thrice-repeated chorus — “Who could have foretold / That the heart would grow so old?” — evolved from anger to desperation to, ultimately, resignation.
The remaining five settings never quite matched the emotional power of the opening song, although the energetic “Sweet Dancer” allowed Barnatan a moment to shine at the piano. Nevertheless, Fleming sang each entry with refinement and textual clarity. The 88-year-old composer beamed his delight from his seat in the fourth row, offering a blown kiss and a thumbs-up to the stage. The rest of us responded with equal enthusiasm.