The happy convergence of legendary American diva Renee Fleming and Sir Andrew Davis at Chicago’s Lyric Opera has resulted in her long-awaited return to Melbourne for two splendid concerts with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra. It was also the only opportunity to hear her sing with a symphony orchestra during this visit to Australia and appreciate the dimensions of her vocal artistry in a context truer to the selected composers’ intentions.
Included at the request of the orchestra, Ravel’s Shéhérazade was at the heart of a program designed to showcase her sumptuous lyricism. In keeping with the exotic nature of the text, Fleming made her entrance as a beautiful, glowing apparition: golden gown and coat, golden hair, golden skin and a radiant smile.
What followed was a sensuous outpouring as singer and orchestra alike luxuriated in Ravel’s lush song-cycle. In her evocation of Asie, with its catalogue of wondrous curiosities from the Middle East and China, Fleming encompassed a range of emotional responses with a voice that coloured every word meaningfully. Lower notes were given dark resonance for “emplie de mystère” (filled with mystery), ghoulish child-like relish infused “Je voudrais voir les assassins souriants” (I would like to see smiling assassins) and her voice soared in effortless legato lines for the climaxes. Prudence Davis added warm, nuanced tone to the sensuous intertwining of voice and flute for the dreamy La Flûte enchantée and the beginning of L’indifférent. Fleming did indeed tell “le conte avec art” and no small part of that artful telling of the tale were Sir Andrew’s conducting in attentive sympathy with her musical impulse and impressive contributions from members of the MSO.
A magnificent blue evening gown and stole made its appearance for the second half of the program, providing further evidence that Renée Fleming is a complete work of art in herself. In the second concert, first the blue gown then a dazzling white confection, with silver sequined sunburst and white tulle stole, became part of the charm package. It was clear that Fleming was pulling out all stops to please and that the audience was completely under her spell.
The first of two contrasting excerpts from Canteloube’s Chants d’Auvergne displayed her sense of fun as a rollicking Malurous qu’o uno fenno ended in an uninhibited shriek. The irresistible strains of Baïlèro were treated with warm, tender care and generous tone by Fleming and wonderfully atmospheric playing by the orchestra, with rippling cascades of glissandi provided by the piano. The Jewel Song from Gounod’s Faust was very much in keeping with the glitter of the white dress as Fleming presented the thrill and chill of Marguerite’s temptation. This came over more as an experience to share with the audience rather than an internal monologue, but was thoroughly engaging on that level and a chance to hear different aspects of her formidable technique. The trills and clean staccato top notes were tossed off seemingly effortlessly.
As a more imaginative orchestral alternative to the playing of popular opera overtures as the singer rested, the operatic thread was sustained with the familiar and appealing Ponchielli’s Dance of the Hours from La Gioconda. It was given a spirited performance with a precision and lightness of touch that accentuated the humour of the piece.
While Fleming might find her transformation into a teenage girl experiencing suicide-inducing torments of love an increasing challenge, she is able to transform their musical expression into vocal triumphs. A song of heartfelt longing from L’amico Fritz by Mascagni and a truly charming song, Aprile by Tosti were less familiar than Puccini’s O mio babbino caro, but most welcome inclusions that were affectingly sung and played.
Apart from sheer talent and hard, intelligent work, Fleming has decades of experience at the highest level and in very diverse circumstances behind her, enabling her to give performances polished to a rare pitch of perfection. It was reassuring to see that what could have been carefully composed chats to the audience between some of the items was personal and spontaneous. Although there was obviously some commonality in what she said on both evenings, much of it related to what she had been doing during her stay in Melbourne, such as her visit to Dame Nellie Melba’s home. It did not, therefore, seem too incongruous to invite the audience to sing the refrain of I could have danced all night for one of her three encores. For its part, the audience from “a singing city”, as she put it, joined in enthusiastically and remarkably tunefully.
After a laid back, jazz infused version of Summertime and the My Fair Lady singalong, her third and final encore was another request: Marietta’s aria from Korngold’s Die Tote Stadt. Using a more introverted approach, Fleming sang with quiet intensity and an absolutely glorious creamy tone, lingering on phrases with an exquisite pianissimo. For many, it was the highlight of the evening and, despite the rapturous, prolonged standing ovation on the final night by an audience loath to say goodbye, it was clear to all that anything more would have been less.
Although the concert began with Four Symphonic Interludes from the opera Intermezzo by Richard Strauss, it seemed a shame that there was none of his vocal music on the program, particularly as Fleming is a famous Strauss exponent. Concertmaster Dale Barltrop played the featured passages for violin with such stylish eloquence in this and other works that Morgen might have been a fitting inclusion.
Given the ecstatic response of the audience and the obvious rapport between singer, conductor and orchestra, perhaps it is not too much to hope for their further collaboration in the “singing city” some time in the near future.
The picture of Renée Fleming performing with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Sir Andrew Davis, was taken by Daniel Aulsebrook.