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RECITAL REVIEW
MasterCard Performance Series / Sunday, September 15, 2013
Renée Fleming, soprano. Gerald Martin Moore,piano

Soprano Renée Fleming

GOLD, SILVER, PLATINUM

by Steve Osborn
Sunday, September 15, 2013

Two songs into her first-ever concert at Weill Hall, Renée Fleming got a laugh by saying, "I'm so excited when I can still make a debut." At 54, Fleming has sung just about everywhere of any consequence, but she still brings a youthful enthusiasm to her performances, along with a youthful voice.

Those first two songs, sung to a nearly full house and lawn on a glorious September afternoon, were actually arias from Handel oratorios: "To Fleeting Pleasures" from Samson, and "O Sleep" from Semele. The latter was mesmerizing, starting on an elaborate glissando on the opening "O" that landed perfectly on pitch. Even more impressive was the fervor with which Fleming sang the plaintive lyrics: "O sleep, again deceive me, to my arms restore my wand'ring love!"

The Handel arias established a pattern that held true throughout the afternoon. Fleming sang with conviction, successfully inhabiting a series of operatic and musical characters, each one thoroughly convincing. Whether enacting Handel's Cleopatra or Leonard Bernstein's Maria, Fleming fit the part, even though her costume changed only once, at intermission.

For those intrigued by such matters, Fleming helpfully announced that the silvery gray evening gown and shawl she wore in the first half were by Vivian Westwood (an English designer famous for punk fashions), whereas the golden dress and coat of the second half were by Angel Sanchez (a Venezuelan with many star clients).

While the wardrobe helped focus attention on Fleming, all that really mattered was what came out of her mouth, and that was consistently excellent, with only a few minor blemishes. One of those arrived at the beginning of the second half, when she didn't quite slide into a high note in Erich Korngold's "Marietta's Lied" (Marietta's song). The other came a few songs later, when she was likewise flat in Puccini's "O mio babbino caro" (Oh my dear father). But the rest was musical nirvana.

Not to be ignored was her accompanist Gerald Martin Moore, a pianist of great delicacy and refinement who managed to summon an entire orchestra with just 10 fingers, two feet and an ever-so-slightly open piano lid. Fleming often gripped the edge of that lid with her right hand, standing comfortably inside the piano's sweeping curve.

Their program was as varied as two dozen songs could be, ranging from the Handel arias, to orchestral songs by Richard Strauss, to American folksongs, to Italian opera, to "The Sound of Music." From a musical standpoint, the three Strauss songs were the highlight of the afternoon.

After declaring Strauss to be her "desert island composer," Fleming launched into a feathery light performance of "Ständchen" (Serenade), giving full meaning to "The brook scarcely murmurs, the breeze scarcely stirs." She then abruptly shifted into the impassioned text of "Morgen" (Morning), executing a gripping crescendo on the opening line: "Und morgen wird die Sonne wieder scheinen" (And tomorrow the sun will shine again). Equally gripping was her rendition of the third Strauss song, "Zueignung" (Dedication). Her vibrato here was unobtrusive and carefully controlled, and her gestures were convincing.

Two folksongs by Joseph Canteloube were next, followed by Léo Delibes' wonderful "Les filles de Cadix" (The girls of Cadiz). Here Fleming's coloratura took center stage, as she slid deliriously from low note to high, channeling the soul of a Spanish maiden dancing the bolero. More folksongs followed, beginning with a medley of "The Water is Wide" and "Shenandoah," then moving on to "Wild Horses," by Jean Richie. Fleming hadn't quite memorized the Richie song, so she kept glancing at the text atop the piano lid.

The first half concluded with a somewhat peculiar rendition of the first few lines of The Declaration of Independence by the contemporary composer J. Todd Frazier. Jefferson's polysyllabic prose is about as far away from lyric as one can get, and the musical result was more of a recitative than a song.

The second half was mostly given over to lighter fare, with the notable exception of the opening number, Korngold's "Marietta's Lied." This fabulous aria makes one want to hear the rest of his rarely performed youthful opera Die tote Stadt (The Dead City). Despite the aforementioned blemish, Fleming brought Marietta fully to life, one of the afternoon's most memorable characters.

Two waltzy songs about Vienna followed, with Fleming in full swing, and then three Italian opera arias, including the Puccini. These were all well done, but there weren't any standouts.

The real crowd-pleasers came in the last part of the program, devoted to American musicals. Despite an initial memory lapse, Fleming clearly enunciated all the many words of Bernstein's "I Feel Pretty," and she gave a heartfelt performance of his "Somewhere," both from West Side Story. From there it was a hop, skip and a jump to "The Sound of Music" and "A Wonderful Guy."

Following boisterous applause, Fleming offered just one encore, "I could have danced all night," inducing the crowd to sing along as she improvised some vocal colorings and a resounding high note at the end.