La Scena Musicale

Monday, January 12, 2009

Four Last Songs

Renée Fleming, soprano; Münichen Philharmoniker / Christian Thielemann
Decca 4780647 (56 min 16 s)
**** $$$

Renée Fleming recorded Vier letzte Lieder for the first time for RCA in 1995, with Christoph Eschenbach leading the Houston forces. This recording is still in the catalogue for good reason – it is one of the most glorious pieces of singing of this song cycle one is likely to encounter. Now we have a second version from Ms. Fleming, with Christian Thielemann and the Munich forces. However fine the Houston Symphony under Eschenbach is, it cannot seriously challenge the supremacy of the Münchner Philharmoniker in this repertoire, especially with Thielemann at the helm. Fleming is in great form – her rich, opulent voice with an impressive top is beautifully captured on microphone. Now with years of experience performing this cycle, all the stars are seemingly aligned for a desert-island Four Last Songs. So I am sorry to say that her second Four Last Songs consists of beautiful singing marred by some self-indulgent mannerisms. The lovely legato in “Fruhling” is compromised by her impulse to emphasize certain words, such as a ludicrous “zittert.” When she refrains from over-acting, the singing is wonderful, as in “Beim Schlafengehen” and “Im Abendrot.” “Ein Schönes war” is truly gorgeous but “Es gibt ein Reich” from Ariadne is too low for her. More congenial is the high tessitura of “Zweite Brautnacht” from Die Aegyptische Helena, rising to a C sharp. These quibbles aside, this disc will prove highly enjoyable for her legions of fans.

- Joseph K. So

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Sunday, December 21, 2008

Met in HD: Thais

Renee Fleming and Thomas Hampson in Metropolitan Opera's Thais

Photo credit: Ken Howard

by Joseph So

In the genre of "diva opera", Thais certainly ranks right up there with the best of them. Since its 1894 premiere at the Palais Garnier starring American Sybil Sanderson, it has always been a vehicle for great - and not so great - prima donnas. Any singer who dares to take on this role, from Mary Garden to Beverly Sills to the current Renee Fleming, must possess the vocal chops for this role, one that requires a full, rich middle, lustrous bottom, and a brilliant top, all the way up to a full throttle high D in the Mirror Aria and the final scene. And it goes without saying that she must look sufficiently glamorous and seductive to impersonate a famous courtesan from ancient Alexandria. Unfortunately, sopranos who look good and sound good don't grow on trees...

Indeed an examination of the performance history of this role reveals few successes. American Carol Neblett achieved notoriety early in her career, not so much for the way she sang but for baring her bosom in the New Orleans Opera production, a very daring move in 1973, in a land that frowns upon "wardrobe malfunctions". Anna Moffo certainly looked believable enough as a courtesan, but the voice was in tatters when she recorded it for RCA. In the late 1970s, Beverly Sills had a qualified success at the Met in this role, mostly through the force of her personality rather than the quality of her singing, and she retired within a couple of years after singing this role. Occasionally you have less well known sopranos taking this on, such as Irish American Mary Dunleavy, who sang it quite respectably, in English, for Opera Theatre of St. Louis in 2003 opposite Canadian baritone James Westman as Athanael. Big-name Italian soprano Barbara Frittoli has just taken a stab at this role in Torino this season. While she is a beautiful woman, her voice with its wide vibrato is far from ideal and she pales in comparison to Renee Fleming, who has sung it to great success in Chicago, and has recorded it a few seasons back.

Renee Fleming has gone on record as saying Thais could have been written with her voice in mind. To my ears, her singing certainly does this role justice. Few sopranos, alive or dead, look as good as she does in closeup. She also has a tendency to throw herself into a role, acting up a storm - indeed sometimes her exaggerated acting and cloying mannerisms tend to distort and overwhelm her singing in roles like Tatyana and Desdemona. But as the coquette Thais, Fleming is near perfection. That said, I find her much more convincing in the pre-transformation, "material girl" phase of Thais, while she is much less convincing as the penitant, the once fallen woman now "saved" by Athanael. Her sweet smile and carefully struck poses in the death scene get high marks for glamour but scores very low in the spiritual depth department.

This Met revival - first time in 30 years since Sills sang it in 1978 - uses the Chicago Lyric John Cox production with some modifications. If you are confused about the time period, you are not alone. The decor is vaguely Art Deco - I suppose you can argue that it is sort of neo-Egyptian - but why do the men wear tuxedos, of all things? They look like they've just wandered off the set of Die Fledermaus or Lustige Witwe. Fleming gets to show off her now ultra-slim figure in a series of form-fitting Christian Lacroix gowns. They are undeniably gorgeous, especially the frocks in Acts 1 and 2. But in her death scene, instead of a nun's habit, she is wearing an equally tight-fitting grey pleated number - in a convent? Thais, now a penitant, dies sitting up in a throne, with a smile on her face. I suppose in diva vehicles like Thais, dramatic verisimilitude takes a backseat to the necessity of making the prima donna look good.

As Athanael, American baritone Thomas Hampson was in the best voice I have heard him in some time. He sang with firm, rich tone and admirable legato, only in forte passages did he sound a little pressed. Canadian tenor Michael Schade did well in the thankless role of Nicias, coping well with the tricky tessitura, although his tone has become increasingly hard-edged. Alain Vernhes contributed a characterful Palemon. Spanish conductor Jesus Lopez-Cobos gave a fluent and suave reading of the perfumy score, and I would be remiss not to mention the resplendent playing of the violin solo "Meditation" by Met concertmaster David Chan. This tune is recycled over and over again throughout the second half, but with such lovely playing, who can complain. There you have it - this production of Thais is a feast for diva worshippers, but don't take Massenet's fake religiosity too seriously or you will be disappointed - reserve that for Parsifal.

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Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Met Opera in HD opens with Glittery Gala

Top Left: Deborah Voigt interviewing Paulo Szot in Time Square

Photo: Ken Howard
Top Right: Renee Fleming in Capriccio

Photo: Ken Howard
Below:Renee Fleming as Violetta

Photo: Ruby Washington / New York Times

Metropolitan Opera in HD opens with Glittery Gala

Joseph So

Now in its third season, the Gelb-inspired, wildly successful Metropolitan Opera in HD opened Monday night with a starry gala consisting of one act each from three operas featuring America's reigning diva, soprano Renee Fleming. The live simulcasts of 14 operas the past two seasons have attracted 1.3 million viewers, a staggering figure when you consider the Met, humongous as opera houses go, has a capacity of only 4,100 including standing room. With this new innovation, the Met has managed to reach a huge worldwide audience, as these shows are also seen in Canada, Europe, Japan, and Australia, and for the first time, Mexico City, the home of tenor Ramon Vargas who also starred in two of the three operas. Despite a few naysayers, there is no question that the Met in HD initiative has gone a long way to promote opera to the general public.

Given the Met success, other houses have jumped on the bandwagon. La Scala's opening night Tristan und Isolde last December 7 was shown in movie houses in Europe and the US (but sadly not in English Canada); San Francisco, Covent Garden and Opera Australia each have their own, non-live simulcasts, but their impact cannot compare to the live Met events, which has a real sesne of occasion. None was more stunning than the opening gala on Monday. Taking a page from Hollywood, the Met laid down the red carpet in Lincoln Center to welcome celebrities the likes of Martha Stewart, German soprano Diana Damrau, and NY mayor Michael Bloomberg. The show was also shown on outdoor screens in Time Square and Fordham University. Mezzo Susan Graham and soprano Deborah Voigt served as roaming reporters speaking, with luminaries and opera fans/tourists alike, lending the event a truly festive feel.

The centerpiece of the event was of course soprano Renee Fleming, America's sweetheart, at least operatically speaking. She combines personal beauty with a seamless, creamy voice and loads of personality. To showcase her talent, the Met put on Act 2 of La traviata, Act 3 of Manon, and the final scene from Capriccio. Now twenty years after winning the Met Auditions, the Fleming voice is still in pristine shape, a testament to her excellent technique and musical acumen. For this extravaganza, several designers created gowns for her, and she wore La Voce, her own perfume. Even Martha Stewart made a special champagne concoction, The Grand Dame, to toast Renee during intermission - talk about being in diva heaven!

Opposite Fleming in two of the three operas was Mexican tenor Ramon Vargas - perhaps not the most romantic-looking of tenors around, but certainly among the most vocally impeccable today, especially as Alfredo. (Too bad his cabaletta was cut) As Des Grieux, his lyric tenor was stretched in "Ah fuyez, douce image" in the St. Sulpice scene, but he coped well. American baritone Thomas Hampson is no stranger to Germont, having sung it in many high profile productions, including the recent Salzburg production with Rolando Villazon and Anna Netrebko. Despite his good intentions, there is no disguising the fact that Hampson is not a true Verdi baritone. He sang all the notes with honour if not distinction. To my ears, Hampson lacks the vocal opulence, the large, rich, mellow, commanding sound of a Robert Merrill or a young Sherrill Milnes to do Germont justice - one longs for Dmitri Hvorostovsky or Bryn Terfel in this role.

The "other" leading American baritone of the evening was Dwayne Croft, in the rather thankless role of Lescaut. He sang correctly but given Fleming's star power, Lescaut's little aria went by with nary a stir from the audience. British bass Robert Lloyd did rather better as a commanding Comte des Grieux. Capriccio's final scene is essentially a one-woman show, and Fleming never looked more gorgeous in the Art Deco outfit, or sounding more vocally resplendent in Madeleine's musing of the primacy of word or music. Veteran American baritone Michael Devlin did a star turn in the cameo role of the Major Domo.

Final Thoughts - few singers today are as gifted as Renee Fleming, and by and large she lived up to the hype. However, I must say that she has become more and more mannered with time. Much of that mannerism was in evidence here. It suited her Manon better than her Violetta - afterall, Manon is the born coquette. Even here, her vocal mannerism was a bit over the top, especially in the cloyingly sung Gavotte. The last twenty minute of Capriccio has some of the most sublime music Strauss ever wrote, and Fleming sang it very beautifully to be sure. But her acting was so extravagant, so excessive that it almost ruined it for me - sometimes, economy of movement makes more of a statement than the incessant waving of hands caressing every inch of one's face and neck. One marvels at the depth of feeling in the aristsocratic stillness of Kiri Te Kanawa, Elizabeth Söderström, or even Johanna Meier as Madeleine. I am afraid there is nothing Parisian - or Straussian for that matter - about the Madeleine of Renee Fleming, only American Apple Pie.

The Met orchestra was led by three maestri - James Levine received a rousing ovation, not only for his conducting of the Verdi, but for his recovery from kidney cancer surgery. The Met Traviata production combines acts 2 and 3, and Levine led the Met forces even more leisurely than usual. In Manon, Marco Armiliato led the orchestra with a firm and sure hand. But for me, the best of the evening was Patrick Summers in the 20-minute final scene from Capriccio - the moonlight music never sounded more trancendent.

I saw the simulcast at the Scotiabank Theatres in downtown Toronto. Everything went well, except for about 15 minutes in the beginning when there was no subtitles. There was likely some technical improvements to the picture quality from last season, as the brightness level has really improved. The sound quality was glitch-free. The next show will be Salome with the great Karita Mattila - get your tickets, you wouldn't want to miss it!

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