Concert Review: Renée Fleming sings at CalPerformances

Messiaen, Massenet, Dutilleux, Strauss, Giordano, Leoncavallo, Zandonai

Zellerbach Hall, Berkeley, 7 December 2009 5 stars

Fleming Renée Fleming is one of the most accomplished artists of today's musical world. Gifted with an expressive voice and a charismatic personality, she masters all the genres of musical performance – from opera to recitals. This latest concert at Zellerbach Hall, for the CalPerformances season, demonstrated once more what an intelligent performer she is.

The programme for her Berkeley concert was very well conceived, and Fleming explained each of its sections to the audience. She stated that the first part included 20th century French music that she has learned recently. Her selection included pieces from the Poèmes pour Mi, a cycle of songs that Messiaen wrote for his wife when he was 27, in order to celebrate both his love for his spouse and for God. An austere sense of spirituality and at the same time a sensuous longing were conveyed in Fleming's rendition. In Ta voix, her tone was light and radiant; with Les deux guerriers she was resolute and could fashion her lines quickly and suddenly. Le collier struck the audience with its change of mood: this is the poem that most clearly conveys desire and seduction. Fleming turned it into an intimate and, at the same time, vigorous piece. All through her interpretation of Messiaen's pieces, the control of her voice was complete, both at the bottom and at the highest top.

The exploration of the French repertoire carried on with a beautiful rendition of 'J'ai versé le poison dans cette coupe d'or', from Cléopatre. Then Fleming presented to the public in Berkeley a cycle of songs particularly dear to her: Le temps de l'horloge by Henry Dutilleux, premiered in its complete version in May 2009. Fleming explained that, after having met Dutilleux during an interview, she expressed her admiration for the Maestro and addressed him saying she would be honoured should he want to write something for her voice. After a few years, the French composer wrote his Le temps especially for the American soprano, making sure that the chest qualities of her voice, of which he is particularly fond, would resonate clearly.

Fleming explained that Dutilleux is fascinated with poetic elaborations of time and memory, and based these compositions on works by Baudelaire and Robert Desnos, a poet and active member of the French Resistance. Fleming managed to exploit the nuances of these complex works in her rendition of these songs. Her sudden variations in intensity created unexpected patterns and subtle shades and made Dutilleux' work resonate with all its multilayered musical and poetical connotations.

With this overview of the French repertoire, Fleming showed the complexity of her musical exploration. Yet, it was with Strauss that Fleming left no doubt of her immense expressive range nor of her precise technique. The outbursts of seduction that made these Strauss songs scandalous during their first performance, as Fleming reminded the audience, were truly brought to life: each single note of her interpretation was a masterpiece, each nuance was portrayed. My personal highlight was Freundliche Vision, in which she conveyed a tremendous level of intimacy and intensity.

FlemingIn the last part of the programme, Fleming ventured into turn-of-the-century Italian repertoire – 'works that are almost forgotten', the soprano noted, but that, when unveiled, reveal a deep level of beauty. These are works such as Giordano's 'Nel suo amor rianimata' from Siberia and Zandonai's 'Ier dalla fabrica a Triana' from Conchita. In these pieces, the interaction with pianist Gerald Martin Moore became more central: there was a real dialogue between the two performers, and the result was a wonderful blending between piano and vocal lines. At the same time, Fleming seemed to be dialoguing with herself, so intense was the level of self-exploration of the singer. One of the highlights of these rarely performed piece was Leoncavallo's 'Angioletto, il tuo nome', from Zazà – a moving and sorrowful aria.

With the last two pieces, Fleming showed once again what a charismatic and eclectic performer she is. She gave her rendition of two arias from La Bohème by Leoncavallo (who had given the libretto to Puccini before realizing that La Bohème could have actually made for a decent opera – too late!). In these two pieces, 'Musette svaria sulla bocca viva' and 'Mimì Pinson, la biondinetta', the two women, Musette and Mimì, make frivolous remarks about one another: Fleming was humorous and lively, and she really made the audience realize that there are jewels are hidden in an unexplored Italian tradition.

Four encores followed the programme: the classic 'O mio babbino caro', a moving rendition of the last scene of Giordano's Fedora ('Tutto tramonta'), another piece by Strauss (at the end of which the public could not prevent from giving a standing ovation), and the intimate 'Touch the hand of love', a song included in 'Songs of Joy and Peace,' the album that Yo-Yo Ma (author of the lyrics) and Fleming recorded in 2008, together with many other artists.

Both rational and instinctive, intense and precise: these are the characteristics of the art of Fleming. With this latest appearance on the West Coast, this performer proved once again that she is able to make her singing come alive, to transform her voice into a powerful instrument of communication. With her warm stage presence and engaging acting talents, Fleming remains one of the most complete artists of her generation.

By Marina Romani

Photo Credits: Andew Eccles/Decca

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