|Renée Fleming (photo by Andrew Eccles)
We live in an age in which opera singers are expected to be beautiful and glamorous. An adoring audience was well rewarded last night at Carnegie Hall when the beautiful and glamorous soprano Renée Fleming was joined by the equally beautiful and glamorous collaborative pianist Olga Kern. We wondered whether we were at a fashion show or a vocal recital. Let us get the visuals out of the way first.
For the first half of the program, Ms. Fleming appeared in a striking charcoal gown with a voluminous skirt and black elbow length gloves, the fingers of which were adorned with rings (bling credited to Ann Ziff for Tamsen Z) with Ms. Kern in a skin-tight strapless red gown that hugged her gorgeous figure right down to the knees at which point it flared out into a fishtail. For the second half of the program, the singer wore a far more flattering red satin gown with matching stole, while Ms. Kern became the wearer of the charcoal, a stunning gown with lines similar to the one she wore for the first half. We were surprised not to find designer credit in the program.
And now we may move on from the arresting visual images to the aural impressions. The highlight of Ms. Fleming's performance was, for us, her third encore--"O, mio babbino caro" from Puccini's Gianni Schicchi. If she never performed in that opera she certainly should have! The aria was delivered with all the passion Puccini wrote and we left Carnegie Hall singing it to ourselves, singing it all the way home. Ms. Fleming seemed far more comfortable with opera than she had been with lieder, although there were several highlights that lifted the evening out of the mundane.
The main problem was the unwelcome presence of the music stand which hampered her connection with the audience. She was not constantly relying on the score but kept it to one side. Still, every occasional glance down and every page turn broke the delicate thread that connects the audience to the singer and the song.
Ms. Fleming announced that this was the first time she had performed Robert Schumann's magnificent song cycle Frauenliebe und leben and it seemed to us as if she were not quite comfortable with it. It was an appropriate choice of material, coming on the heels of International Women's Day and it is one of our favorite pieces of music; but the performance seemed flat and lacking in variety of color. The performance picked up toward the end with the sweet "Süsser Freund, du blickest" in which the young married woman reveals her pregnancy to her husband. The final song "Nun hast du mir den ersten Schmerz getan" is a real heartbreaker but we were less moved than we generally are by this incredible work.
A group of songs by Rachmaninoff fared better and seemed to be a more comfortable fit for Ms. Fleming's lush instrument. We loved the heart rending "Sing not to me, beautiful maiden", filled as it is with depths of homesickness. The gentle "The Waterlily" was short and sweet, while the passionate "Spring Waters" seemed seasonally appropriate.
We particularly enjoyed Ms. Kern's piano solo. Rachmaninoff himself arranged "Lilacs" for solo piano and she imbued her performance with delicate filigrees of sound that took us right into Central Park's Lilac Walk which we visit every April.
Ms. Kern had another solo during the second half of the program and she dazzled us with "Feux d'artifice" from Debussy's second book of Préludes from 1913. One might say that the performance was filled with fireworks!
The set of Debussy songs was well performed by the two lovely ladies. We always love the langorous "C'est l'extase" but the final song "Chevaux de bois" was our favorite with its dynamic variety and excitement, all of which was captured by the two artists.
The final set comprised five songs by Patricia Barber and we would agree with Ms. Fleming that these are art songs; be they jazz or blues, they surely deserved to be on the program, even though they are not our taste. Ms. Fleming seemed very comfortable with them and appeared to be having a fine time, especially in the final song in which the singer gives the boot to a man who has served his purpose.
As encores we heard "Danny Boy" with Ms. Kern providing a most interesting accompaniment, and "Shall We Dance" from Rodgers and Hammerstein's The King and I now playing on Broadway.
And then....to waft us homeward, the glorious "O, mio babbino caro".
(c) meche kroop