RENÉE FLEMING © Decca/Andrew Eccles

Renée Fleming in recital

On the 22nd of April, 2022, at the Royal Festival Hall in London, it was a red letter day for fans of opera. In one of her now extremely rare appearances in concert and productions alike, Renée Fleming appeared in a gala evening of music by composers as diverse as Dvořák, Verdi and Richard Strauss. If some works in her early career paralleled roles of her great predecessor, Elizabeth Schwartzkopf, whose voice she most closely resembles she has now extended her repertoire to an unimaginable inclusion of high soprano roles in myriad languages. She made her early career based on performances and recordings of complete roles of the major lirico-spinto characters in standard operatic repertoire by Mozart, Verdi, Puccini, Massenet, Richard Strauss, Handel and Haydn. She later very successfully added the roles of Tatyana in Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin in Russian and the title role in Rusalka, Dvořák’s opera in the Czech language. She has since retired many of these roles including the Marschallin in Strauss’ Der Rosenkavalier which she successfully performed around the world making it a signature role. She has not been forgotten in my mind’s ear for her spectacular live Traviata at London’s Covent Garden alongside the young Joseph Calleja and Thomas Hampson and both Rusalka and Thaïs in concert performances at the same theatre. 

This concerned occasion is by no means a valedictory performance or even a sad memory in any respect. Here Renée Fleming proves that she at the age of 63 still has the glory of an almost untouched and resplendent voice with the charming and self-effacing personality which sets her apart from other divas functioning today. I say functioning deliberately because in recent years that I have heard the so-called top singers it is only her performances which radiate honesty and integrity in the best possible senses of those terms. Mind you she is no pushover as her crossover recordings in jazz, pop and broadway are testimony to and many Grammy nominations and Awards are proof of her universal recognition. She is every inch a people’s soprano (like Princess Diana was) with a name instantly recognised around the world. 

But in no small way the success of the evening was also in the hands of conductor Enrique Mazzola with the splendid London Philharmonic Orchestra. Some initial unease especially in the horns at the start of Dvořák’s little-known overture to the drama of Othello aside, the orchestra acquitted itself admirably. 

At the peak of his career Dvořák remained as any of his contemporaries, an innovative composer. He attempted a new format which he called a triple overture comprising three linked overtures which he originally named Nature, Life and Love. The wider world was not accepting of this innovation and Dvořák was forced to re-publish them as three separate overtures the last renamed Overtura Eroica and then Tragic Overture before deciding on the name of Othello representing in one word the three powerful emotions embodied in the play namely heroism, tragedy and passion. The music is literal and programmatic as detailed by a verbal description by the composer, the descending “willow” motive played by oboes plays a prominent part both in the slow introduction and the main quicker section. The oboes doubling with flutes emphasises the sweet and gentle love of Desdemona. The trombone mimics the jealous mind of Othello in its clarion call when he slays his wife. 

To end the first half of the programme we go back to the beginning of Act IV of the opera Otello by Giuseppe Verdi. Unarguably the greatest Italian opera composer who ever lived Verdi drew great inspiration from the 17th century playwright William Shakespeare. The English author and poet who was obviously read avidly in translation across Western Europe at that time was brought first to the attention of continental Europe by the advocacy of Goethe, the pre-eminent German poet and scholar of his day. Verdi developed a keen interest in the plays of ‘the bard of Avon’ spurred on by his friendship and later collaboration with the verismo opera composer and librettist his younger contemporary Arrigo Boito. It was the latter who persuaded Verdi to compose Otello to his own libretto in Verdi’s early 70’s and still more amazingly write his crowning masterpiece Falstaff based on ‘The Merry Wives of Windsor’ when he was 80. Verdi did not live long enough to complete his hat-trick of last operas inspired by the Elizabethan thespian with ‘King Lear’. 

Act IV begins with the famous scena called “Canzone del salice” or Willow Song sung by Desdemona recalling a fable about a woman anticipating her death while waiting by the weeping willows in the pond. She imitates the sighs with halting thirds repeated three times as a refrain Salce! Salce! Salce!

By the time she turns towards the framed Virgin to pray for her innocent love she knows the future holds death for her. 

Although Callas recorded this scene there is no recording of the role of Desdemona as she never assayed it on stage. Fleming in her performance reminds us of the attention to detail and word pointing of the Greek-American diva while acting and singing flawlessly if a trifle precious (sometimes her vocal mannerisms tended to bring to mind Schwarzkopf again). But on a more positive note rather than invoking la Divina she reminded me of the artistry of both Zinka Milanov (the long departed prima donna at the Met) and more recently of the late great Montserrat Caballe. And praise can be no higher than that

The Ave Maria was hushed, contemplative and delivered with exemplary breath control, perfect intonation (even in the final high top note of A flat which seemed to go on endlessly). A formidable achievement!

The second half consisted of excerpts from Richard Strauss’ last opera Capriccio written in 1941 to a libretto written by the conductor Clemens Kraus and the composer himself. Similar to the Feldmarschallin’s monologue at the end of Act I of Der Rosenkavalier where the proceedings of a single day are pictorialised, in the opera Capriccio the young Countess Madeleine needs to choose one of her two suitors by the next morning. Is it possible when the two are so intertwined as Olivier (music) and Flamand (words)? Is it necessary to give pride of place to music? (prima la musica, poi le parole?)

The first excerpt was the instrumental string sextet with which the curtain rises. The Countess’ long monologue was next. Not as familiar as the Verdi scena in the first half this was if possible even more beautifully sung. The top notes were gleaming and phrasing never over-emphatic or careless. At this stage in her career this is repertoire which is a gift. With no need to apologise for anything this was immaculate and spectacular in every way. In retrospect it would be nice to continue hearing her Strauss, maybe some lighter Wagner (Eva in Meistersinger) and Weber. 

The programme ended with the Moonlight Music scored for chamber orchestra with a lovely introspective horn solo. Fleming came on stage only once more for a very dignified encore in the form of Strauss’ lied Morgen with he concertmaster joining in beautifully with intertwining lines. A very satisfying evening indeed.