Cher Public

Our Lady of Perpetual Indulgence

Renee FlemingRenée Fleming is an indulgent artist—she indulges her audience and herself. Or, to put it less pejoratively: she is generous. Fleming gives, to us—to herself. And who can blame her? If I were Renée Fleming, I, too, would indulge myself. 

I would do whatever I wanted to do, be it a Broadway show or an inappropriate album of pop-tunes. Fleming has earned it: the right to be frivolous, bizarre, erratic—and yes, indulgent: Joni Mitchell and Strauss; Arcade Fire and Rusalka. Nevertheless, who else can claim such extraordinary status in her profession? Who else has such unwavering command of her own persona?

If she wants to wear not one, but two (!) wedding-cake diva gowns in a single evening, why would anyone deny her? If she wants to sing an unremarkable set of contemporary jazz songs in recital, what’s the harm? She is a national treasure. And while she may make some peculiar career choices every now and then (Dark Hope anyone?), those that love her don’t mind. She’s a star. And stars are allowed a certain modicum of eccentricity.

Such singularity was on display last night in Isaac Stern Auditorium at Carnegie Hall, where the singer appeared with pianist Olga Kern in an eclectic program consisting of Schumann, Rachmaninoff, Debussy, and the American jazz composer Patricia Barber.

Though it’s every bit my right to fawn when in the presence of The Queen, I would be remiss not to mention that Fleming’s voice, in its current iteration, might have lost some of its past sumptuousness. Beginning with her first set, Robert Schumann’s Frauenliebe und -leben, there was a tendency to veer sharp and shrill as she ascended into the upper register. What once was luminous here sounded tight, and a bit caged. Consequently, the singer rarely allowed her voice to open to the full bloom of its former potential.

And yet, in the end, do such quibbles even matter? The singing was still better than much I’ve heard in New York lately. And all the mannerisms and vocal tics that have made Fleming so quotable (for better or for worse) reminded one of her inexhaustibility as an artistic figure. She is a star, and her fans adore her; to quote her counterpart in in the pop world, Beyoncé: bow down bitchea. This was Fleming’s show, Fleming’s turf.

Schumann’s womanly song cycle is a celebration of female life, mediated through the male gaze of poet (and botanist!) Adelbert von Chamisso. While, in her opening remarks, Fleming tried to recuperate the piece as a work of proto-feminism, entreating the audience to indulge its historical context, this approach didn’t totally work: the lyrics are still a tad abgeschmackt, not to mention lousy with sexism. Thankfully, Schumann’s genius buoyed Fleming’s sincerity, and the performance was committed, if not utterly convincing.

Fleming is, as her fans know, a dream Rachmaninov interpreter, and she sailed through such stalwarts as “In the Silence of the Secret Night,” “Sing not to me, beautiful maiden,” “Twilight” and “Spring Waters” with athletic ease. Halfway through the set, Fleming left the stage, leaving Kern to play a setting of Rachmaninov’s “Lilacs,” arranged for the piano by the composer.

Before assuming the bench, Kern gave an anecdote about the composer’s experience with the flower. “What did she say?” a woman behind me whispered loudly. “I don’t know, I didn’t hear one word she said,” another replied. No matter. Kern’s playing provided the articulation her explanation lacked.

In the second half, following a muscular rendition of Debussy’s Feux d’artifice from Kern, the singer dispatched the composer’s celebrated Ariettes oubliées, an intoxicating demonstration of singing, perfumed with the soprano’s languorous vocal color and extensive breath control. Here, Fleming’s performance had a somatic intensity, and she rocked back and forth, digging passionately into her breath support, allowing her plush voice to sigh through “Spleen” with ease.

The diva has spoken at length about her special affinity for jazz, and her recital concluded with a set of songs by the contemporary composer Patricia Barber, an artist Fleming discovered through her recent work in Chicago. These “art songs” failed to make much of an impression, with the exception of one titled “Morpheus,” an ode to the Greek god of dreams. Despite the dull, redundant quality of the composition (think Adam Guettel—more jazzy, but less fresh), Fleming’s talent elevated the material beyond itself.

Many have criticized Fleming’s permissive vocalism—her swoops and scoops. And while the purist in me would love to write off such habitual leniency as nothing more than idiosyncratic laziness, the opera queen in me is far too allegiant to the institution of the Star, an institution Renée Fleming currently embodies. And so, I cannot look down my nose too sternly.

Fleming’s encores of “Danny Boy”, “Shall we Dance” from the The King and I, and “O mio babbino caro” were prime examples of her keen ability to deliver to her audience exactly what it came to hear. Melodramatic, loose, and emotional, these encores were by far the highlight of the evening: a star, in all her glory, bending ever so slightly from the stage to touch the hearts of those who have loved and loved and loved her.

Photo: Andrew Eccles

  • Feldmarschallin

    very tight face.

    • PCally

      Jesus, at this point your hatred for Fleming is just straight up bizarre and amounts to borderline trolling. She looks fine, this is hardly major surgery by any standard.

    • CwbyLA

      You do realize that this is a photoshopped picture, right?

  • Big Finn

    I consider myself a fan. But in her debut recital in Finland (and the only one) in late 2010, she chose to do a set from her Dark Hope collection in the middle of her classical “best of” repertoire, and it totally twisted the mood and the credibility of her as a (smart) performer. Total imbalance. The impact with the audience was a major disappointment. With a 60 000€ fee for a single orchestral recital, and creating that kind of mood, there have been no return requests.

    A seriously indulgent and ill advised choice of repertoire then.

    • armerjacquino

      Dark Hope was released in 2010. It’s almost certainly the reason there was a recital tour in the first place.

      • Big Finn

        A tour, yes indeed. A major reason, Dark Hope or not: 60 000 euros a pop.

  • Gualtier M

    I spoke to three people who were there -- none were impressed. I decided to take the night off from opera -- skipped the “Manon Lescaut” HD encore and “Don Pasquale” at the Met and just stayed home.

    Every one of my informants said that Renée was using a music stand, didn’t connect to the audience and that she only came alive during the encores. She and Olga Kern changed dresses after intermission -- Fleming started out in charcoal and Kern in red -- then they swapped colors after intermission. However, it really had nothing to do with the material and just looked contrived and artificial. Also Fleming had trouble managing the train of the gown and nearly tripped.

    One of my informants is Austrian and she couldn’t understand a word that Renée was singing in that language. She said that the “Frauenliebe -- und Leben” was all one color and mood and was tedious. The jazz piece by Patricia Barber was a waste of time and Fleming may like to sing jazz but jazz isn’t returning the favor. Fleming to my ears has always done well by 20th Century music -- one of my favorite performances of her ever was of “Poemes Pour Mi” by Olivier Messiaen with the NY Philharmonic I think broadcast on PBS. So I imagine the Debussy could be good. “Shall We Dance” is a duet and needs some staging -- “Hello Young Lovers” would have been better.

    Three friends said that though Renée projected adequately the quality of her voice was thin and even squeaky on the top and in general sounded small. This also contributed to the lack of variety in vocal palette. They also complained that Fleming kind of failed to connect with the audience (hard in Stern Hall) and many were bored. Very different from Karita last night who bowled the audience over with her communication and enthusiasm just by walking out onstage before she had sung a note (I was there).

    Weird thing -- I looked at the Carnegie Hall website and the seating chart showed only a handful of empty seats and maybe a dozen available tickets. However one friend sat upstairs and said it was empty especially the rear balcony. So that is wonky.

    • Feldmarschallin

      Well her fanboy will not be pleased. You will be called borderline trolling. Yes that face looks so natural for a woman in her mid to late 50’s. If you really believe that I have a bridge to sell to you.

      • armerjacquino

        Those of us who don’t hate women as much as you do don’t really care whether she’s had surgery or not.

      • PCally

        Lol I’m actually not a big fan of Fleming. I like her in some things and can’t stand her in others. But yes, your hateful comments are certainly up there in terms of trolling, nowhere near as clever as you seem to perceive them to be.

    • Sedizioso Voce

      GM, I was at both recitals. Your friends were spot on about Fleming -- a snooze fest. She seems to wallow in a feeling of her own “specialness”. I’m almost sorry I went. Mattila, on the other hand, was magnificent. I feared that the voice may have deteriorated since she last sang here, but the absolute opposite was true AND she connected with the audience in a way that Fleming, in my opinion, didn’t even attempt.

      How about adding Isolde to your list of Mattila “wish” roles?

    • operadunce

      Unlike some of you who rely on second or third hand information, I actually attended the recital on Wednesday and I have attended many of Fleming’s performances over the years. I did not intend to comment on the performance because I know the bias of this site. But since certain people seem to think that they are experts based on the reports of their “informants”, I am moved to add my own impressions. Am I a fan? You bet I am. I love the voice. Even though it is not as consistent as it once was it is still superior to that of many others. I admit that there are times when certain mannerisms make even me cringe a bit, but I thought that those were few and far between on Wednesday night. Frankly, I thought she sounded pretty wonderful, one or two high notes aside. The breath control was still outstanding. The dynamics and phrasing were still impressive. So your Austrian friends couldn’t understand her German. I can’t always understand her English when she sings at the upper end of her range. I am no expert, but I think that it has something to do with the way she produces her sound. No matter. She conveys plenty of meaning through her tone and color. So Renee used a music stand. She’s been doing that for at least two or three years now. She doesn’t face the stand when she is singing, but I think it makes her feel more secure to have some prompts of some sort there. Olga had a page turner, so what? Renee changed gowns at intermission. I think she has been doing that for about twenty years. Her fans have come to expect it. Perhaps I’m wrong about this, but I think even a certain Parterrian fave did that at her recent Met recital. Renee didn’t connect with the audience? It didn’t seem that way to me sitting in the dress circle. To me, the Rachmaninoff songs were pure guilty pleasure. The Debussy was impressive and the French speaking couple sitting next to me applauded enthusiastically. The Patricia Barber songs were a delight and I say that after having seen Fleming perform them in Chicago in December. I believe she has changed her approach to them and sang them in a jazzier way than she did at that time. She seemed much more comfortable with them this time around. The lyrics have much more to say than many so-called art songs and I think that was the point she was trying to get across. Some of you may think that she is self-indulgent, but I think many of her female fans, myself included, admire her for her resistance to being labeled or pigeon-holed. I think we admire the generosity that allows her to share the spotlight with others and to promote their artistic contributions. I think we admire that after two plus decades she is still at the top of a profession she loves. It seems that we still live in a world where men, be they gay or straight, think they can tell women what they should or should not do, how they should or should not do it, whether people should or should not like it. Renee doesn’t pay attention to that and I admire her for it. I hope she continues to get under the skin of certain commenters on this site for many years to come.

      • olliedawg

        Renee is a menschy lady, with a fair dash of class. Bashing her every time her name or photo appears is simply tiresome. Fleming continues to sing at a pretty high level, keeps giving herself challenges (win or lose), still looks elegant, and always comes across as a decent human being, with an ego flexible enough to allow others to share the limelight (such as her BFF, SuzyG). She’s made tons of great music, and is a great ambassador for her art.

      • EarlyRomantic

        As impressive as these?

      • CwbyLA

        very well said operadunce!

  • I am neither a fan nor a detractor of Mme Flemming and have to admit that I have never heard her live and maybe only once or twice on recordings. But I am really puzzled by some of the comments that show up here -- unbidden I’m sure -- when there is the almost mandatory weekly post about her activities.

    So a lady of a certain age has a nip and a tuck here and there -- what exactly is the problem? Is she asking us to pay for it? Well maybe yes indirectly if we pay to see her on stage or buy her records but anyone who has an aversion to her surely doesn’t do that so it’s not their nickel being spent.

    And why is the wardrobe so important. It is mentioned both here and in the New York Times review. At a Whitsun Concert at Salzburg two years ago Joyce DiDonato changed gowns at intermission and for all I know does it all her concerts but without comment. And I probably shouldn’t say her name but so does Cecilia Bartoli and I’m sure some other divas. I would dare say that’s part of the fun of being diva.

    • Bill

      In my earlier days of going to concerts and lieder recitals I do not ever remember Schwarzkopf, Seefried, Streich, de los Angeles, Christa Ludwig etc changing dresses mid-concert.
      I do recall a lieder recital of Delores Ziegler in NYC
      where her gown had been lost or delayed in transit and
      she sang the first half of her program in a brown
      pants suit (apologizing of course) and then came out
      in a formal gown for the second half when the dress
      was located (the audience applauded her gowned entrance
      profusely). This idea of switching dresses mid-concert seems to have become much more profusely done in the last 20 or 30 years or so and now seems almost expected
      maybe as more concerts are filmed or televised.

      Fleming’s diction in German, though she speaks the language and lived for a time in German speaking lands,
      has never been particularly clear even as the Marschallin, or in Capriccio where there is a considerable amount of parlando -- Many Americans,
      Cheryl Studer and Claire Watson, though, have had
      very clear pronunciation in German and some high sopranos such as Barbara Bonney, Helen Donath and Patricia Wise as well.

      • Bill -- I don’t remember who it was -- I’m getting old -- but there was one recitalist who after sporting the same baby blue gown for three appearances over several years a group of us wanted to get up collection for so she could get a new frock. She made a farewell appearance -- in a new frock -- still in baby blue.

        • jackoh

          I am still waiting for the concert or recital where the singer(s) (male or female) come out and perform naked. Why not?

          • Charlotte Moorman says hello.

            • manou

              Moorman was more woman.

            • Camille

              m.c. —
              A once upon a time suitor of mine, in a land far from me, was a fellow cellist and friend of Charlotte’s at the time of her initial topless stunt. He was so upset about it all that he told her, and in no uncertain terms, to “”Put your clothes back on, Charlotte!!! You just haven’t got enough of anything to make anyone want to look!!!”

              She did not obey his command, and the rest, as they say -- is HERStory!!

              [True story]

      • phoenix

        ‘This idea of switching dresses mid-concert seems to have become much more profusely done in the last 20 or 30 years or so …’ Bill, don’t you remember Emma?
        -- British Newspaper ‘Truth’, November 18, 1885. Courtesty of Cornell University Library:
        ‘I commend to lady vocalists in this county the tactics of Madame Emma Nevada in the United States. The lady is now on a concert tour with a company of which she is the only female artist. There is nobody, therefore, to divide with her the bouquets. But as some ladies who attend concerts take as much an interest in the costumes as much as the music, Madame Nevada has hit upon a clever plan to avoid monotony. It is announced that she will change her dress after every song and at least she will appear in that wedding robe that recently so excited Paris. If this be true, it seems that the attractions of Madame Nevada’s voice have been most cruelly overrated. All that are wanted for her concerts appear to be her wardrobe and a lay figure.’
        Emma in costume:

        • Bill

          Phoenix -- no I never heard of her -- she must have
          had to travel with a great deal of baggage.

        • Cicciabella

          Pray, what is a “lay figure”? On the basis of the photo I’d say compact but curvy, but what does it mean?

          • Batty Masetto

            Ciccia, I wondered that too. Turns out a “lay figure” is “A dummy or jointed manikin of a human body used by artists, especially for arranging drapery on.” Who knew?

            • Cicciabella

              Ya live an’ loin. Thanks, Batty.

        • SuzeQ

          Many reporters of Renee Fleming’s recent recital also speculate on how recently we have seen female singers appear in a 2nd gown after intermission. Let me weigh in with a report from the season of fall 1960 into 1961 when Dorothy Kirsten dazzled a recital audience by appearing after intermission in an opulent gown as beautiful as the one she had worn earlier in the evening. Her glamour quotient was so high that she might as well have been Suzy Parker garbed or a fashion shoot with Richard Avedon or Irving Penn. Instead she was a classically trained opera singer whose gift for popular song crossover was unsurpassed. Women have sung well and wowed their audiences by changing costume for at least 57 years.

          • semira mide

            A favorite costume change was that of Ewa Podles in her all-Rossini program at Carnegie Hall many years ago. For the first half she war black trousers with a gold jacket. After intermission she changed to a lovely gown with the same gold fabric ( and perhaps some black). Quite stunning, and what better way to have fun with the fact that the “trouser” roles came first, and afterwards it was the “skirt” roles. Of course the way she sang she could have showed up in anything, but it was a nice light-hearted touch to a memorable concert.

            • semira mide

              Ouch, she “wore” not “war”!

  • moi

    Could you please write something about Mattila’s recital?
    For years I’ve wished her to sing the Wesendonck lieder… and now now she did,
    but I’m on the wrong continent , and there was no broadcast…

    • PushedUpMezzo

      You can hear Mattila’s Liebestod on BBC Radio 3 this Sunday in a concert from Prague. That appears to be her sole contribution to a bizarre mix of Schutz, Wagner, Brahhms and Schumann from different European cities

  • She did a similar program in Toronto last fall. She was in good voice (though it has deteriorated noticeably, especially on top) and she had warm interaction with the appreciative audience. I found it pretty boring and found her indulgences typical of her mannered singing, but not necessarily generous. The Barber songs did not excite. Her encores were the best part of the performance especially “Marietta’s Lied”.

    • Gualtier M

      Actually Kashie, Mattila’s voice sounded resplendent last night from top to bottom. The middle is denser and rounder and the top was pretty free and often gleaming.

      She did tire however at the end of the evening -- physically and a wee bit vocally. She programmed a very long group of Strauss and “Allerseelen” and “Caecilie” right next to each other -- she required a pause to adjust from the radiant reflective mood of the first to the joyous ecstatic mood of the second. I would have cut one or two songs from the Strauss group (maybe save one for a first encore) and put “Allerseelen” earlier in the set and kept “Caecilie” for the big finish. Her voice is way more seamless and has lost that white hooty pressed quality it had in her last Met seasons from 2006 to 2009.

      Before her encore she admitted that she missed New York and the audiences there -- “us” and that she had taken a creative break. I think she has sorted out a lot of vocal issues during that break and now the voice definitely is a spinto leaning towards dramatic (Jugendlich Heldensopran) in weight and depth of tone.

      I also want her Sieglinde, Ariadne and Marie in “Wozzeck” at the Met NOW!!!

      • Gualtier M

        Sorry Kashie -- I was responding to Moi and thought that you were talking about Mattila.

        BTW: Mattila doesn’t look like she has had any work done. But several other opera singers besides Fleming (including some men) have had work done. Some down to earth American divas come to mind…

        • No prob, Gualtier. Matilla’s recital in Toronto last summer was so good that it moved me to write my first review for parterre. She seems to be experiencing a magnificent autumn to her career.

      • PCally

        So glad to hear of Mattilas success. Your comment is pretty much in line with how I felt about her Ariadnes at the ROH earlier this season. She seems to have righted the ship and I hope that her return to the met is a triumph.

    • BTW, after Fleming’s Toronto recital, I was mere steps away from her at a post-performance reception. She looked great. I’m sure she’s had work done (and I have no idea why that’s a big deal for some; I’ll get work done too when the time comes) but she looked lovely. Whatever nips and tucks she’s had, none of it was obvious. But by all means, let’s tear apart a glossy publicity photo. Yawn.

  • parpignol

    the Debussy was the best part of the program--
    the Danny Boy and Babbino caro encores were both lovely, and showed how remarkably she has maintained the tonal beauty of the instrument. . .

    • parpignol

      and I certainly remember her singing Marietta’s song brilliantly at a Met gala some years back--

  • Dolciamente Pipo

    I have no idea (or interest) as to whether Renee Fleming has nipped and tucked or not, but guys, THIS IS A PHOTO!! Professional photos of famous people are almost always digitally enhanced and can not be considered a reliable source for how the person actually looks…or whether they have had plastic surgery. And, I mean, really, she’s lovely; who cares?

    I’ve been mostly a fan over the years. I saw her in a recital here in Seattle probably about a decade ago. Even at that time she needed the first set to warm up (a lot of singers do). After that it was smooth sailing and a love fest…a very generous program. I think this was the tour in conjunction with her French art song album (Night Songs?).
    At that time, she also did one jazz encore: “It Don’t Mean a Thing if it Ain’t Got that Swing”. It was even hard for an admirer such as myself to go there with her. Fleming has many prodigious gifts, unfortunately “swing” is not among them.
    But aside from that it was a great program.

    • armerjacquino

      And, I mean, really, she’s lovely; who cares?

      Literally only one person in the thread.

  • actfive

    OT--just listened to Ana Maria Martinez singing “Ave Maria” at Nancy Reagan’s funeral. Just beautiful.

    • Quanto Painy Fakor

      Martinez was indeed very expressive with her beautiful contributions to the service. It even appeared that her singing penetrated the hearts of those present. Brava.

  • GRDowntown

    I really don’t care what either the singer or the pianist wore. Most of the comments on this recital here and elsewhere (especially the NYT) read more like a review of a Milan fashion show. But let’s face it--she is the biggest opera star in the world. She really is going out on top in opera--not as others have done. Are there any opera stars who stop singing at the very height of their powers even though they could go for year even decades? I suppose you can say that Kathleen Battle came close to that--her peak coming in about 1990, but then again hers was a special case that commanded front page coverage in the NYT.

  • Camille

    LEAVE RENÉE ALONE! Basta Roberti!

    *I was there*, as well, and all I have to say is that for a woman her age -- or ANY age for that matter -- she looks fabulous, and all you jealous bitches would give your right nut to look as good!!!

    She sings how she sings and one either likes it or one doesn’t. She has long since become, like Thaïs on her high chair at the end of the Met’s production, an ascended master (mistress?), and is beyond rhis world. So there. Leave her alone--it’s a goddamn hard jib to represent the world of OPERA to The Great American Public, and she lacks the common touch, like La Bubbles.

    • Camille

      well, before mess di voce points it out, I’ll correct this too, “it’s a goddamn hard jOb to represent the world of OPERA to etc……….”

      Okay, and I clipped it off as was in a hurry but I wanted to say that Bubbles had this endearing, big cheesy folksy schmarmy smiling countenance which, I guess, was phoney, but WORKED, AND HOW!! She had been a child start and knew how to pour it on. Anyway, there may have been “America’s Diva” before Bubbles but she really got that entire concept over in the age of mass media, television opera, and the like. AND RF would seem to have inherited that throne and, you know, this is not Italy or Germany or France or even Spain or Hungary or Austria, or anywhere else where there is a several hundred years history and tradition of opera. It’s a big add-on and has usually been reserved for the elite, the Metropolitan was not conceived for and by hoi polloi, so if the U.S. of A. needs a “National Diva”, then so be it, to get the entire Opera Thing across, in order that it survive. That’s all.

      Never mind.

  • Grane

    Re gown changes: I saw Cecilia Bartoli at Carnegie Hall a few years ago. She wore a sequined coral gown with a huge train, then after intermission came out wearing exactly the same gown in blue. Or maybe the blue came first. But otherwise identical! Our divas are who they are!