Renee Fleming, Recitalist
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.
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.�
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.