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.