Renée Fleming sang the Boston leg of her current recital tour last night at Symphony Hall accompanied by the distinguished German pianist Hartmut Höll. Not only was Ms Fleming in free, shimmering and beautifully controlled voice, but last night's program of Purcell, Handel, Berg and Schumann was some of her most disciplined work in a very long time.
I am not a great fan of vocal recitals at Symphony, not only because of the hall's size, but because a recitalist inevitably looks isolated on the huge platform and the Hall's unattractive stage lighting creates neither mood nor intimacy. Jordan Hall is far more suitable except as to capacity for so popular an artist. Fleming, however, possesses a big enough voice and personality to fill Symphony's huge expanses, and enough star power to fill its seats last night. Currently very blond, she passed on her customary Ferré gown in favor of Oscar de la Renta in very pale champagne beige with sequins, adding a fourteen foot long semi-sheer white chiffon stole in the second half for well managed dramatic effect. Audience response was rapturous.
The program began with Purcell's "The Blessed Virgin's Expostulation," a kind of mini-mad scene for Mary and the sort of angular, dramatic and vocally demanding piece recitalists often favor as warm-up material. An extended recitative is followed by two cantilena sections. It's a strange and fascinating piece that didn't pull into focus until Ms Fleming settled down to show her legato phrasing near the end. Thereafter, everything was very much under control. The Purcell selections were "Sweeter than Roses" from Pausanias, "I take no pleasure in the sun's bright beams," "I attempt from love's sickness to fly" from The Indian Queen and "O, let me weep" from The Fairy Queen. The Purcell brought out the first well executed coloratura of the evening and what would also be a theme in the Handel to come — intimate, beautifully sustained laments that held the audience in hushed attention. The swooping portamenti and other liberties that have been controversial in some of Ms Flemings work were left back in the "Expostulation's" recitative — throughout the evening there was a clean line and great attention to dynamic shading.
The Handel began with a fleet, vivacious "Oh! Had I Jubal's lyre" from Joshua, and proceeded through a finely spun "O sleep, why dost thou leave me?" (extended applause) and "To fleeting pleasures make your court" from Samson which was played in character as a seductive, kittenish Dalila. Another lament, "Calm thou my soul/Convey me to some peaceful shore" from Alexander Balus was followed by "Endless pleasure" from Semele, also performed in character as a deliciously self-absorbed coquette.
There was a complete change of mood after intermission. Surrounded by diaphanous chiffon, Fleming let out her opalescent tone generously in Alban Berg's "Sieben frühe Lieder." She preceded the set with a request that the audience please hold applause until after each of the lieder sets. They did so in the gorgeously sung Berg but their discipline broke down a bit toward the end of the Schumann set that consisted of eight songs: Ständchen, Mondnacht, Er ist's!, Hauptmann's Weib, Hochländisches Wiegenlied and Du bist wie eine Blume (both to texts by Robert Burns as translated into German), Aufträge and Stille Tränen. The Schumann was sung simply, directly and with warmth.
There were four encores: a thrilling, full bore performance of Strauss's Cecilia (Fleming said she hates to do a recital without Strauss somewhere in the evening); Puccini's "O mio babbino caro;" a surprisingly restrained version of Ms Fleming's art nouveau arrangement of "Somewhere over the rainbow" that had been purged of about 50% of its usual departures from the vocal line (the crowd loved it); and a lovely, shimmering performance of Maietta's Lied from Korngold's Die Tote Stadt notable for its perfect legato and for the elegance of Hartmut Höll's playing of the extended postlude.
Höll's accompaniment was a revelation. Widely celebrated for his lengthy collaborations with Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and mezzo Mitsuko Shirai in German Lieder, among many other distinctions, he brought style, elegance and support (rather than competition with the soloist) to the program, scaling his volume perfectly to Ms Fleming's, letting his beautifully colored and shaded tone ring out fully only in the Berg in which she herself let fly in an appropriate late Romantic manner. Theirs was a most rewarding collaboration.
Technical Coordinator for Theater Arts
Massachusetts Institute of Technology