Cher Public

At sunset

FlemingEven before James Levine announced his retirement as Music Director, one of this week’s concerts by the Met Orchestra at Carnegie Hall had a valedictory feel having nothing to do with Levine. Although it was not announced as such, Sunday afternoon’s all-Richard Strauss concert served as a de facto commemoration of the 25th anniversary of the debut of Renée Fleming, long one of the house’s biggest stars. 

Although she didn’t perform at the Met this season, in April 2017 she returns for what has long been whispered to be her final Met role, the Marschallin in a new Robert Carsen Der Rosenkavalier.

At 57, Fleming was in remarkably fresh and uncharacteristically intense form for the Vier Letzte Lieder (and six other orchestral songs) in what was difficult not to take as the first installment of her Met farewell. Thought reduced a bit in volume, most of her top notes have remained secure and soaring, while, when warmed up, the middle—never her glory—often spoke beautifully and her sparingly used chest register still made its mark.

I moved to New York City a few months before her Met debut as the Countess in Le Nozze di Figaro substituting for an ailing colleague. Since then the soprano has become exceptionally present in my musical life even though I’d never describe myself as a fan. I was shocked to discover that over the years I’ve attended over 40 of her performances—operas, concerts, galas—since my “Fleming-discovery”—her scintillating La Folie in Rameau’s Platée at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in 1988!

As many times as I heard her, I still didn’t manage to catch everything—I missed her Pamina, her Fiordiligi, her Ellen Orford, her Verdi Requiem, even her Imogene (a rare cancelation!). But otherwise I went to Fleming performances—three Rusalkas, for example and two Rodelindas—and in retrospect, I sometimes wonder why I did. Over these nearly 30 years, she has always been uncommonly dependable: impeccably prepared and dramatically alert. A canny public relations person dubbed her “The Beautiful Voice” and certainly one was always assured of getting that—but in the end she moved me rarely.

While I admired her superior gifts, her cool reserve seldom stirred my affection, and her mannerisms (entirely absent during Sunday’s concert) could be maddening. But there were a few occasions where she did break through. Her hushed, heart-breaking “Porgi amor” in the Jonathan Miller production of Nozze did touch me as no other Countess has. As Arabella, she elegantly descended the long staircase holding the glass of water for Mandryka before unleashing a flood of ravishing Straussian silver that elicited a flood of tears.

She always struck me as this era’s ideal Mozart-Strauss soprano—Kiri Te Kanawa’s obvious successor, but she consciously rebelled against the label singing a more eclectic repertoire. She inexplicably dropped all Mozart roles from her repertoire just after age 40; I was out of the country when she sang Fiordiligi at the Met in 1996, but I figured I’d catch it “next time”—that sadly never happened.

But happily she has continued to embrace Strauss. True, those first Met Marschallins were smiling and bland, and one scarcely caught a word during the entire first act, but she had improved immeasurably for the 2009 run. On the other hand, I found her Met Madeleine in Capriccio irritatingly vapid and unsympathetic. However, her shining Carnegie Hall Daphne beamed from being courted by the god-like trumpeting of Johan Botha. She waited until late to take on Ariadne for just two performances in Baden-Baden, but it proved a surprisingly satisfying portrayal—preserved on DVD.

Before Sunday’s concert I had caught her Vier Letze Lieder live just once before—ten years ago in Rome with Antonio Pappano and the Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia. She was in splendid voice but the songs struck me as gorgeous vocalizes with not much meaning or heart. Happily, under the meticulously supportive baton of David Robertson (substituting for the absent Levine), Fleming navigated a journey of quiet hope, beginning with an atypically sunny “Frühling.” Although her voice was still a bit unsettled (and what soprano over 40 relishes that merciless first song anyway?), she reveled in the glory of spring.

The mood darkened only slightly in “September”—the end of summer suggested the ever-changing seasons, not the ominous intimations of death that surface in remaining songs. She soared in the glorious conclusion of “Beim Schlafengehen” that follows the violin solo, and she held “Im Abendrot” to a sublime stillness draining all the color out of her voice for the final “der Tod?” While the voice had changed amazingly little from that Rome performance a decade ago, a deeply felt interpretation had matured.

The slighter songs after intermission predictably had less of an impact, although the dark and deliberate “Ruhe, meine Seele” was haunting with Robertson drawing typically glorious playing from the Met Orchestra. It also shone in the magnificent postlude to Fleming’s final programed song, the otherwise slight “Die heiligen drei Könige aus Morgenland.” The unsurprising encore “Cäcilie” inevitably brought down the house but exposed one tiny clink in Fleming’s vocal armor—forte high notes turn harsh.

Robertson opened the program with a bristling bravura Don Juan; after Fleming’s exit (what? no flowers?), Also sprach Zarathustra was scheduled, but as I dislike that over-familiar and bombastic piece I fled content to have heard what may well have been Fleming’s last wistful VLL at Carnegie Hall.

  • I have fond memories of a Schubert disk featuring a gorgeous Shepherd On The Rock. But the Rossini Armada was so wrong. I described it at the time as 6 tenors in search of a soprano.

    • Cicciabella

      Manou? Armada…

      • manou

        Well -- it was a losing battle.

        • Cicciabella
        • DonCarloFanatic

          I needed that laugh. Thanks.

        • Cicciabella

          The empty reply was supposed to read: “Punchline drum roll!”

    • Cocky Kurwenal

      If only she had included The Shepherd on the Rock on her Schubert disc but alas, she did not.

    • semira mide

      Fleming’s first attempt at Armida was a big success. She was a last-minute replacement at the Rossini Opera Festival. She credits this performance as her “European breakthrough”. The performance at the Met was a huge disappointment, and she was not well served by really indifferent conducting, a giant spider ( remember the spider?) and sloppy coloratura ( hers). Perhaps she attempted something she shouldn’t have.

  • Cicciabella

    What an honest and beautiful review. Love Ms Fleming, her voice is truly special. Now can anyone confirm if she, in fact, plays Bianca Castafiore in Spielberg’s Tin Tin film?

    • Patrick Mack

      She does absolutely and she’s listed in the credits at the end.

      • Cicciabella

        Thanks, Patrick & Cocky. Just saw the film (finally). The aria’s not a natural fit for her, but she does a very good job.

    • Cocky Kurwenal

      I heard her speak about it recently, she confessed to finding Je veux vivre jolly difficult.

  • Porgy Amor

    Great review, Christopher.

    About the new Carsen Rosenkavalier being Fleming’s operatic farewell, I think it’s past the level of whispers at this point. Whether the singing will be past the level of whispers, I’ll wait for the in-person attendees to tell me. Here’s an excerpt from a Guardian piece in February:

    What she specifically doesn’t want to repeat is opera. “It’s physically demanding and time-consuming,” she says. “I’ve done a great deal of it over my career, and I don’t want anyone saying that I sang such-and-such a thing better five years ago. So I’ve decided that Rosenkavalier at Covent Garden and the Met next season will be my last mainstream opera appearances.

    It’s not retirement – I might be tempted by something newly written, but I’m not going to cling on. There’s plenty else I want to do.”

    • Porgy Amor

      Telegraph, rather.

    • mjmacmtenor

      Leomtyne Price was almost exactly the same age when she made he Met farewell and retired from opera. She spent another 10 years doing recitals and concerts. I am sure Ms. Fleming will remain an active performer in some way for years to come.

  • PCally

    What an excellent review. I’m actually very sorry to have missed this but as someone who has LOVED Fleming in some things I have to admit that her interpretation of the Vier Letzte Lieder (as heard on recordings) was underwhelming to say the least and in the second recordings’ case somewhat poorly sung. Despite her acclaim in the operas of Strauss, the only Strauss role I love her without hesitation in is Capriccio. Her Marschallin I find to be overly sentimental and maudlin and for reasons hard to explain I think Arabella has to be the worst of her signature roles. In this Corwin and I have opposing views. And the last few times I’ve seen her (I skipped the Merry Widow) have been extremely disappointing.

    By I think the flack she gets is by and large part unnecessary, especially since she’s always appeared to be such a nice and intelligent lady and a first rate musician. As far as I’m concerned Desdemona is her best role, followed by the Grafin, Rusalka, Tatiana, and her core Mozart rep. That 1998 Countess remains my favorite interpretation of that role, her voice was entering it’s peak years and the singing is just unnaturally beautiful. And her Fiordiligi at the met was amazing, MUCH better than her weirdly “off” recording for Solti (I also find her video of the Countess to be lacking compared to her later performances of the role).

    I also admired her quite a bit as Thais, Alcina, and Manon, though in the last two roles she probably wouldn’t be my first choice. Her Ellen Orford was also lovely. I would have liked to have heard an Elsa from her but considering that she supposedly struggled as Eva, it’s probably just as well that she decided not to sing. So I guess I’m more of a qualified fan, but at her best she was one the best IMO.

    • uwsinnyc

      What an absolutely lovely dove sono. I forget sometimes what a truly beautiful and juicily rich voice she had in her prime.

      I would say those Met fiordiligis and Countesses were her absolute best. I also liked her in Capriccio and Arabella although the diction in these very wordy operas was less than optimal.