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A star is reborn

Let’s start with some refreshing news:  ”Poèmes” is the finest thing Renée Fleming has recorded in many a season.  This is not an obvious vanity project.  A collection of 20th century French orchestral songs in which Ravel’s “Shéhérazade” is the best-known item is probably a marketing executive’s nightmare, even with a soprano as iconic as Fleming.  But the end result is a marvelous showcase for this artist.  Along the way, she shines a spotlight on neglected masters deserving of greater recognition.

In short, Fleming sounds sensational here.  The basic timbre is astonishingly well-preserved for a soprano in late career.  The material also draws out Fleming’s special affinity for this repertoire.  In the liner notes, she states:  “For the sheer sensual joy of singing, no language gives me more pleasure than French.  Not only am I drawn in by the beauty of the poetry and the evocative texture of the music, but the unaccented and legato fluidity of these phrases places my voice in its optimal resonance.”  She exudes the same voluptuousness and vocal glamour that made her Manon and Thais so special in the theater–minus the heaping dollop of mannerisms.

In fact, Fleming is surprisingly restrained in her approach to interpretation.  There is the occasional and expected Leontynesque grunt and swell on low notes but in general, Fleming sounds fully within the material and singing with an organic command and appreciation for the demands of the music.  One even detects a note of Schwarzkopfian parody in the phrase “comme une musique fausse” from the third song of the Ravel song cycle, where she sounds the final word with an almost self-deprecating textual emphasis.

While “Shéhérazade” is the best known item on the program, it is the most dispensable of the offerings.  Fleming sounds vocally attractive and dramatically alert throughout.  But she is really undone by a most unflattering recording acoustic, a problem that also afflicts the Messiaen songs.  Fleming sounds as if she is singing underwater from within a metal cylinder with the orchestra piped in from regions unknown.  This automatically disqualifies her recording from ultimate consideration.  No need to dispense with your definitive Crespin recording in gorgeous early-stereo Decca sound.  Actually, the current recording is so offensive in this regard, feel free to hang on to your Heather Harper.

It is to Fleming’s credit that she transcends her very real sonic limitations to score a triumph in Messiaen’s “Poèmes pour Mi,” a collection of songs celebrating the composer’s short-lived happiness in marriage to the woman he nicknamed “Mi.”  Her formidable technique and fluent musicianship make the cerebral, sometimes angular, always demanding songs a powerful listening experience.  She is required to execute many melismas throughout the piece and they are impeccably delivered with easy breath control, ravishing tone and dead-on-the money intonation, no more so than in the opening song “Action de grâces.”  She receives considerate support throughout by Alan Gilbert and the forces of the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France.

“Le Temps l’horloge” is a work commissioned especially for Fleming from Henri Dutilleux, who is 96 at the time of this review.  Fleming states in the liner notes that the two met at a radio station while waiting to be interviewed and shared their mutual appreciation.  The piece is captured here in a live 2009 performance at the Theatre des Champs-Elysees, unfortunately recorded in the same soupy resonance as the rest of the disc.  Dutilleux’s subtle use of harpsichord, accordion and various percussion instruments is almost completely obliterated by the flat, distant placement.  Fleming gets carried away in the parlando sections of “Le Masque,” emoting to beat the band but is persuasive elsewhere.  Seiji Ozawa is a sensitive collaborator and the Orchestre National de France sounds like a superb ensemble.  Too bad they are both undercut by the poor, almost in-house level of the recording.

For the sake of Fleming’s masterful rendering of the Messiaen, I highly recommend this disc.  It is a vindication of her current possibilities as an artist and an affirmation of her considerable strengths.  But note to Decca:  please destroy any pending contracts with these recording engineers and sample your own remarkable archive for guidance on how it’s done.

61 comments

  • Camille says:

    Since it is official and it’s “Be Kind to Scoopy” day around these parts, I’m going to park my favourite memory of her on here, it is germane to another discussion going on in a previous thread.

    A Star is Born:

    Camille heard her sing this six months or so prior, in the never-to-be-forgotten Seattle Opera production of Rusalka, she starring and a mighty young Ben Heppner as the Prince. I know, I know, I’ve bored people before on this box about this memory, but any of you out there who may have heard it too, will know what I mean and why I cherish the memory so greatly.

    Pace.
    C.

    • DurfortDM says:

      Apropos of nothing in particular (except contemporary period in Scoopy’s career):

      and since we’re at it

      • Bianca Castafiore says:

        Camillewska, that’s amazing… Renaaaay in heavier Verdi? Whodda thunk? If only she would keep the over-embellishments in check and sing it straight, she could be what we all want her to be… and we’d be much less catty around here.

        And Quivar, just amazing, except a little short on top, but what a luxurious instrument.

      • Bianca Castafiore says:

        Oops, I meant, Mr. Durfort!!!!

    • ilpenedelmiocor says:

      Yeah, I saw her Rusalka in 1995. Riveting.

  • Camille says:

    And thanks, Enzo adorato, for being fair-minded.

    Along with La Cieca Mamma, as well:
    “Ah, come t’AAAAAAAAH-mo!”

  • Bianca Castafiore says:

    Camilletta, my feet are killing me!!! I was up on them all day, I need to go soak them… Irma!!!!!!!

    You know, a few years back, Renaaaaay sang an all-French program with NYPhil and Masur, and it was so fantabulous! Loved her ‘Il est doux, il est bon’, and I think she also sang arias from Manon and Thaïs. Anyone else remember that?

    The first time I heard the Scheherazade was the recording with Berganza, the whole Ravel songs CD set, which I so loved, but unf, out of print. Jessye sang the Chansons Madecasses, Lott the Scottish songs, I think van Dam was in it as well…

    Anyone also recall Hendricks’ all-French aria album? Lovely as well.

    • Camille says:

      Get that hussy Irma to work!!

      Yes I remember that concert with Masur, I am thinking I saw it on television and the Gavotte was very secure and well sung.

      Renee Fleming also sang these Chansons pour Mi in another opening night event only a few years back — perhaps some masterful person could go and retrieve the review or link dealing with her performance at that time, that is, if anyone is interested.

      In answer to another question about Renee on the night of Il Pirata, eh bien, it soon became evident to me that she looked splendid but she was trying to walk in the footsteps of persons preceding her that actually fit into the galoshes needed to wade through those swappy Sicilian marshes in Pirata. I’ll never forget my disappointment, as I had so looked forward to hearing the prima assoluta of this opus at the Met.
      I went one time, and did not return. I shoulld have been interested to have heard the Macarena sing it instead.

      She just does not have a voice that can be driven by DRAMA, in which Pirata abounds in sizilianer spades. Let her stick with Massenet, et al. How about if she did that old Emma Calve vehicle SAPHO, as Fanny LeGrand?

      Anyway, Bianca, I thought I was getting better but I’m not. I tried to go shopping today and it held no interest for me, so I’m still not very well.

      Tell Irma to HURRY UP~! Do not neglect to put Epson Salts in your footbath!!!

      As ever,
      Camilletta la vecchietta

      • DurfortDM says:

        Sie haben recht: Pirata a most infelicitous fit. Furious with her for not doing something else.

        • DurfortDM says:

          Hear a rather good performance of these in Paris a couple of years back and Jane Archibald is doing it with Thielemann and the BPO. Should be available on Digital Concert Hall.

        • Camille says:

          Danke, Mr. DurfortDM.

          Here is Renee explaining the songs:

          • Camille says:

            The first section (of seven segments available on youtuber) of the sublime Quatuor de la fin du monde.

            I love this.

          • Buster says:

            Camille – that is very beautiful. Later this month there will be a memorial concert for Oane Wierdsma, and it opens with exactly this movement, and closes with Dover Beach! Two works you have posted clips from the last week – it seems your mind has already crossed the pond!
            Thanks for that Dover Beach – Rose Bampton story, by the way. We also get a woman singing it: Barber specialist Roberta Alexander.

            http://tinyurl.com/7hlkc8t

            In the same weekend Géraldine Chauve will do Berlioz Roméo et Juliette.

          • Buster says:

            La cantatrice Chauvet, I mean.

          • I simply love Messiaen.
            Recommended : a delicious set on DECCA comprising 6 CDs.
            Turangalila (Chailly)
            Quatour (Bell / Collins / Isserlis / Mustonen) !!!
            Poemes pour Mi (orchestral -- Felicity Palmer / Boulez
            ; piano version -- Noelle Barker)
            L’Ascension (Stokowski)
            Et exspecto ressurectionem mortuorum (Haitink)
            La Transfiguration de Notre Seigneur (Dorati)

            and also choral songs.
            Wonderful set.

          • MontyNostry says:

            Attempting provocation as usual, Norman Lebrecht seems to be paying tribute to the famous (apocryphal?) Callas/Tebaldi champagne/Coca Cola exchange.

            http://www.openlettersmonthly.com/cd-of-the-week-renee-fleming/
            She has completely the wrong voice for Ravel’s Shéhérezade [sic], none of the required shimmer of mystery. Beside the enchanted flute, she is a Chevvy in a carwash, an American in a Chateau-Lafite winery ordering bottled Coke.

            Renee has her faults, but she is classier than that.

          • Camille says:

            Busterdear!
            Just now i have seen this. Ms. Alexander is a fine singer and lady. Glad to know she is doing this piece. Hope your Pinkster is a happy one!

      • armerjacquino says:

        Camille- I think she can be driven by drama. Forget her silent-movie histrionics in this video- in fact, do what I’m doing now, and have the Youtube open in another window so you can’t see her- and you’ll hear all the energy and drive and, yes, drama, that this highly dramatic duet requires.

        • Camille says:

          Honey, I’ve seen this. I know what you mean

          I was speaking very specifically about the VOCAL APPARATUS being driven. Not her interpretative style, etc., ad nauseam. She has a delicate instrument that has many times gone into overdrive, because of the exigencies of her career and her popularity and what her fans wanted from her, at least that’s what I feel.

    • Camille says:

      oh, and I forgot to mention this, Bianca--
      The once and only time I’ve heard La Jessonda in the flesh, it was a Carnegie concert and she sang the SCARIEST Chansons de Madecasses ever done in the history of song. She was FIERCE, in the truest sense of that overused word.

      Ta-ta--
      C.

    • armerjacquino says:

      Yes! I had that Hendricks recital. And I always hear ‘Dis moi que je suis belle’ in her voice.

      • MontyNostry says:

        Well, I once booked to see Jessye doing Poèmes pour Mi (that was true dedication), but she cancelled I got Jane Manning instead. Not quite the same thing.

        And I have that Hendricks French recital on LP, which means it hasn’t been listened to for a VERY long time, but I remember it as one of her better recordings. (I’m fond of Hendricks, and saw her several times in concert at the peak of her career -- though never in opera -- but I’m never quite sure how good she really was.)

        • Bianca Castafiore says:

          Oh I miss that Hendricks recital disk. I have to go look to see where I can find it again. She was almost as good as *moi*, and even the “Je veux vivre” coloratura didn’t pose much of a terror for her.

          The all-Ravel songs set I mentioned before also had Mesplé and Bacquier…

  • armerjacquino says:

    Another commenting glitch- if I try to reply to anything on page 1 of the comments of this post, it makes me log in again, then transfers me over to page 2…

    Anyway, I was wanting to respond, gently, to Durfort’s suggestion of how Fleming could have had a ‘more important’ career. This seems to me to be the triumph of opinion over fact. Whatever one thinks of Fleming, she has sung whatever she wants at all the greatest houses in the world for a couple of decades, and she’s left commercial audio and video recordings of most of her roles. Whether you like her or not, that’s an important career. I don’t see how concentrating on French rep rather than singing, say, the Marschallin or Countess Madeleine would have made her career more important.

    • CwbyLA says:

      I also want to add to this sentiment. As a 35 year old who started listening to opera about ten years ago, I did not have the chance to “grow up” with the likes of Callas, Gencer, Tebaldi, Sutherland, Caballe but Fleming, Gheorghiu, and Netrebko. All of them hold a special place for me as I had many of my “first” experiences with their voices firmly etched in my memory. I will never forget how Dima and Renee gave me the chills in their final duet from Onegin, or how my heart starting racing when I heard Netrebko sing the final cabaletta in Anna Bolena or the explainable sorrow I felt when Gheorghiu sang Mimi’s Addio from Boheme.

      I am well aware of Fleming’s mannerisms but for me, Fleming remains an important artist because she has taken me to numerous “unusual” territories. I would have never heard of Messainen’s Peoemes per mi were it not for her. Again, I would have never heard of Rodelinda were it not for her and later discover Sutherland’s recording of the same opera or Antonacci’s recent performances.

      Needless to say, I have been experiencing opera in a much different context than by someone who started listening in the 50s or the 60s or by someone who has been living in NYC and attending the Met for the last 30 years. By following Renee Fleming’s career and her curiosity in “trying out” different genres (and squarely failing in some of them), I was able to discover things beyond Renee herself, for which I am very grateful.

      • Bosah says:

        Thank you for that, CwbyLA.

        You’re not alone. Renee was my first entry to opera. She led me to explore way beyond even her broad rep choices. I suspect the story is the same for many who discovered opera in the last 15 years or so. She is the face of opera divas for most Americans -- that’s not just a PR claim of hers.

        Of course, now that “opera star” Katherine Jenkins is on Dancing With the Stars, perhaps that will change! /jk

      • iltenoredigrazia says:

        cwbyLA says “I will never forget how Dima and Renee gave me the chills in their final duet from Onegin, or how my heart starting racing when I heard Netrebko sing the final cabaletta in Anna Bolena or the explainable sorrow I felt when Gheorghiu sang Mimi’s Addio from Boheme.”

        cwbyLA, I’ve been attending opera performances now for almost 50 years and those were great experiences to me too. Glad to know you’re putting together your own collection of operatic memories.

    • Bosah says:

      Thank you, AJ. I had commented on this point also before I saw your response. Had I read your comment, I would have refrained. You said it much better.

  • Nerva Nelli says:

    Renée Mazella is not just one of opera’s most celebrated sopranos, but perhaps its most convincing actress. A consummate artist, her one and only role when she stands in the spotlight is to breathe so much life into the opera’s main character that audiences lose themselves in her unforgettable performances. That is the passion of Renée Mazella.

    • MontyNostry says:

      Mazella tov?

      All I can find about Madame Mazella (of whom I had never heard before) are a couple of bits of Spontini on YouTube, photos on Getty Images and this, from the website of composer Paul Wehage:

      Pendant sa première année au CNSM de Paris, Paul Wehage a commencé des études avec sa voisine à Montmartre, la Soprano française Rénée Mazella qui a eu une longue carrière en Amérique du Sud. Madame Mazella l’a forcé de complétement repenser ses idées sur la production du son, la réspiration, le répertoire et la présentation des concerts. Son enseignement, inspiré à la fois par la pensé yogique et la technique vocale classique, a donné à Paul Wehage une nouvelle aisance technique ainsi que des nouvelles approches sur la musicalité et l’interprétation qui l’ont encore amené de regarder en dehors du monde restreint du Saxophone.

      La maîtrise de Renée Mazella pour la musique française du début du 20ième siècle (Ibert, Honneger, Debussy, Ravel, Chabrier etc) a mené Paul Wehage à commencer des recherches dans ce répertoire, avec des bases solides de cette source d’information primaire (Mazella avait travaillé directement avec Jacques Ibert, Milhaud et avait eu des renseignements sur Ravel et Debussy par ses maîtres).

  • Mrs Rance says:

    re: Sheherazades, for a certain kind of sensualite (fr) and abandon, I find Jennie Tourel and Lennie hard to beat.

    • There’s also a beautiful, sensuous version from Rachel Yakar and Armin Jordan

    • Phoenicia Pomegranate says:

      I have other recordings, but after hearing Jennie and Lennie, there’s no going back. It’s not just a wonderful performance--Tourel is making love to the French language as well.

  • manou says:

    Sunday Times :

    “Ravel/Messiaen/Dutilleux — Songs with Orchestra
    Renée Fleming (soprano), Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France, Orchestre National de France, cond Alan Gilbert, Seiji Ozawa
    Decca 4783500
    Given that Fleming celebrated 50 years in 2009 — when she premiered Dutilleux’s Le Temps l’horloge (Time and the Clock), recorded live here — the state of her voice is cause for wonderment. The plush, peachy tone, her trademark, sounds unimpaired by the years; and, sung in decipherable French, the language she claims to enjoy more than any other, her accounts of the Dutilleux songs (tailor-made for her voice) and Messaien’s early, rhapsodic Poèmes pour Mi are surely hors concours. The American soprano justifiably revels in the sound of her own voice. If there have been more Gallic Shéhérazades on disc, none is more beautifully sung. HC” (Hugh Canning)

    Independent :

    http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/classical/reviews/album-renee-fleming-pomes-decca-7545908.html

  • Earl Koenig says:

    I truly love these Messiaen songs. They have such a wide dramatic range, and a crystalline kind of beauty that is very unique. Looking forward to this recording, as the first time I heard these songs was with Fleming, Gilbert, and the NYPhil. My go-to recording is on Naxos with Anne Schwanewilms with Jun Märkl conducting the Lyon National Orchestra. Her bright, instrumental timbre suits these songs beautifully.