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Homage — The Age of the Diva
16 Oct 2006

Homage — The Age of the Diva

In the 1890s, the term “diva” was first used in print to refer to an opera singer or stage star.

Homage — The Age of the Diva

Renée Fleming (soprano), Orchestra of the Mariinsky Theatre, Valery Gergiev (cond.)

Decca 475 8068 (US); 475 8069 (In'tl) [CD]

$12.99  Click to buy

Originating from the Latin for “goddess,” the word has morphed through the last century to signify both performers with star power as well as anyone who is temperamental enough to demand “star” treatment. Even water cooler crowds can now have “divas.” Although most people use “diva” to refer to both sexes, the term “divo” for males actually exists.

It is the original meaning of word that is celebrated in the new Renée Fleming CD, Homage – The Age of the Diva (Decca, October 2006). The premise, according to Fleming, is to “stretch” herself musically with some intriguing selections that were star pieces for some of the late 19th – early 20th centuries greatest names, many of whom are featured on historic recordings. Among these are the likes of Rosa Ponselle, Maria Jeritza, Magda Olivero, Geraldine Farrar, Emmy Destinn, and Mary Garden, all women who added their own dimension to the image of the operatic diva. However, as much as this recording is dedicated to these stars and the roles and music they premiered and portrayed, it is as much a vehicle initiating today’s audiences to a wide variety of little-known arias from works that have been forgotten (at least in twenty-first century America). Fleming’s yearlong research into this repertory (the only opera with which she herself is intimately associated is Jenůfa) also provides her with a unique group of dramatic arias that sit perfectly with her voice.

Fleming is accompanied on this artistic crusade by a conductor she admires intensely: Valery Gergiev, who for this recording leads his own Orchestra of the Mariinsky Theatre. Just as there are those who adore him as an opera conductor, there are those who hate him; on this recording, though, he pairs so seamlessly with Fleming that the result is indeed, as she describes his work, “magic.” The recording is a series of 14 selections that are one better than the other, dramatically sung and elegantly accompanied.

The operas from which Fleming drew her selections are Cilea’s Adriana Lecouvreur (Milan, 1902); Smetana’s Dalibor (Prague, 1868); Tchaikovsky’s Oprichnik (premiered at the Mariinsky in 1874); Korngold’s last two works, Das Wunder der Heliane (Hamburg, 1927) and Die Kathrin (Stockholm, 1939); Gounod’s Mireille (Paris, 1864); Richard Strauss’ Die Liebe der Danae (Salzburg, 1952); Rimsky-Korsakov’s Servilia (also at the Mariinsky, 1902); and Massenet’s Cléopâtre (Monte Carlo, 1914-15). The three remaining, Il trovatore (Rome, 1853—the earliest work represented), Tosca (Rome, 1900) and Jenůfa (Brno, 1904) are the most commonly known operas on the list. Although all of the other works contain gems for the diva voice, their histories in many cases reflect scores and librettos that in their day were considered troublesome. Dalibor, for instance, drew initial criticism for not being “Czech” enough; Mireille, too, had a spotty history, as did Danae, a performance of which was sidetracked by none other than Joseph Goebbels. Nevertheless, the compilation is a credit to Fleming’s desire to resurrect rich and worthy numbers.

In the Smetana and Janáček, Fleming demonstrates her facility with Czech; she is equally able in the other four languages represented: Italian, French, German, and Russian. Her voice also “fits” the gamut of this repertory, from the traditional aria forms of “Tacea la notte … Di tale amor” to the other-worldly melodies of the two Korngold works. Her intelligent renditions of all of the arias and the sensitive orchestral support of Gergiev’s baton make this recording a noteworthy offering from one of the most respected divas of the contemporary American stage.

Denise Gallo

Click here for more information on this album, including musical excerpts.

[Editor's Note: Dr. Gallo is the author of Opera — The Basics (New York and London: Routledge, 2006)]


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