Renee Fleming, Recitalist

1.26.2005

By Brendan Lemon

Though her favorite composer is German (Richard Strauss), and the role she has sung the most often is Italian (Desdemona in Verdi's Otello), Renee Fleming is this decade's Great American Soprano. In the midst of a multi-city tour of the U.S., which I caught at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in Los Angeles, sponsored by the Los Angeles Opera, Fleming's accessible American beauty shone through, even though her program's most extensive sections were devoted to songs by Alban Berg and Robert Schumann.
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Attired in a dazzling flesh-colored gown that molted a feather or two when Fleming got especially impassioned, and adding a cream tulle wrap for the program's second half, the singer nonetheless pleased the audience most when she sang straightforward American songs: John Kander's 'A Letter from Sullivan Ballou,''originally written for'an about-to-die male soldier to his'sweetheart'and, literally, imbued with a lesbian tinge because Fleming sang it, got the evening's biggest ovation. And then there was Carlisle Floyd's 'Ain't It'a Pretty Night,' from Susanna, which Fleming coated with a rich Gershwinesque sound, an association reinforced during the program's five encores, when Fleming sang another aria from Susanna just before doing Gershwin's 'Summertime.'
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I had a slight quibble with one of the American tunes, however. That section featured an aria from Andre Previn's A Streetcar Named Desire, which Fleming premiered in San Francisco a few years ago. Try as I might, I just don't believe Fleming as the hysteric Blanche DuBois. Fleming's artistry goes against the grain of demented female roles, even though she has dipped into them during a wide-ranging career that has included some bel canto. And though I don't believe a soprano has to'have African-American'inflections'to project the full measure of feeling in 'Summertime,' they help.

My favorite section of the program was the Berg, his 'Seven Early Songs' written when this early-20th-century composer was in his late teens. Taking their texts from some of Berg's favorite poets'Rilke among them'these selections allowed Fleming to use her instrument, distinctive for its many colors, at its dreamiest. The Berg numbers and her rendition of an exquisite'Schumann song, 'Mondnacht,' may not have been the crowd-pleasers but their artistry in Fleming's hands was supreme.

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