Monday, January 24, 2005

Just a day job: Fleming's Berkeley recital

Renée's recent CD of Handel Arias

During the encores portion of her recital Sunday afternoon in Berkeley, Renée Fleming had some trouble offering from the stage a description of the lyrics to Strauss' song, "Morgen." After much awkward fumbling while attempting to translate the words, the divine Renée joked, "I think I'll be keeping my day job."

Problem is, Miss Fleming is increasingly treating her "day job" like a "day job." Sporting a dazzling skin colored, body hugging Oscar de la Renta gown, the soprano goes through the motions as a sophisticated star diva -- managing concert tours, gala engagements, TV and high-profile appearances with the poise and assurance of a seasoned veteran in the public eye -- yet seems a tad desperate when attempting to define her artistic self.

Accompanied by the excellent pianist Hartmut Höll, Fleming opened the recital with a set of Handelian arias, mirrowing the selections in her recent CD release. Handel provides ample opportunity for the soprano to exhibit her glorious sustained high notes, and no doubt hardcore Fleming fans appreciate these. Yet the heavy handed approach, the tremulous middle register, and above all her excessive use of portamenti provides a version of these arias that is downright bizarre. You gotta give the woman credit for trying to be interesting, but Alban Berg's Seven Early Songs and John Kander's overly sentimental A Letter from Sullivan Balou are hardly choices which suit a soaring operatic voice such as hers, or the tastes of her key audience.

I'm sure that Miss Fleming's spirit of championing contemporary composers is sincere. However, selecting something as stilted as Andre Previn's dismal The Giraffes Go to Hamburg makes her seem like a singer that tries to program contemporary music, only because that is what "serious" artists do. True, opera singers often have trouble searching and defining their non-operatic repertoire, yet it is possible to make this very search into an element which complements one's artistic identity -- as evidenced in Ben Heppner's repertoire choices at his Davies Hall recital, only a week ago. Fleming gets a lot of slack for that glorious voice and her million dollar tricks, but her overreaching repertoire simply offers no focus these days, making her soprano sound like a splendid instrument being misused.

In the concluding set of Schumann songs, the soprano found a safe environment in which could be again at ease, and regained much of her footing. Fleming concluded the recital with four encores: Puccini's "O mio babbino caro;" Morgen; Gershwin's "Summertime," and a repeat of "Cäcilie," heard recently when she appeared at MTT's birthday bash.

© 2005 C. Chang

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