Cher Public

T’would be a sacrilege to sing at another door

“Did you ever have the feeling that you wanted to go, and then you had the feeling that you wanted to stay?”  This soul-searching question is likely running through the mind of Renée Fleming as she fills up Internet bandwidth, radio airwaves, and cinemas with more Marschallins this week.  

So let’s bid her “Ja, ja” with, in my opinion, a more suitable vehicle: Richard Strauss’ “conversation piece,” Capriccio.

The cast of this 2014 performance from the Chicago leg of her farewell tour includes Bo Skovhus, William Burden, Audun Iversen, Peter Rose, and Anne Sofie von Otter, with Andrew Davis on the podium.

This also inches me closer to uploading Strauss’ entire operatic oeuvre.

Confession time: from Fleming’s first stab at Resi at the Met back in January 2000, I never found it an appropriate vehicle for her talents.  A few days after the premiere, I lunched with an aging artists’ manager who had worked with Fleming early in her career.  After voicing my opinion, he asked, “You know why Renée will never be a great Marschallin?”  He then tapped his temple.

I must also confess some wonderful memories, such as Carlisle Floyd’s Susannah, and the world premieres in San Francisco of The Dangerous Liaisons and A Streetcar Named Desire, as well as Capriccio at Wiener Staatsoper.

Most memorable was the 2007 gala opening of the Grafenegg Festival, celebrating the inauguration of the architectural award-winning outdoor arena, the Wolkenturm, in a light-but-steady rainfall.

As 2,000 people struggled to maneuver dry cleaning bags over their eveningwear, Fleming waited patiently for the noise to die down, and then dazzled us with a string of obscure arias by Erich Korngold, and what seemed to be her signature theme, an exquisite “Mesicku na nebi hlubokém” from Rusalka.

Her career choices have been somewhat confounding, but there were always exceptions, when she legitimately lived up to all of her hype.

Post scriptum: Angela Gheorghiu has withdrawn from today’s free worldwide livestream of Tosca from Wiener Staatsoper; her replacement is Martina Serafin.

  • PCally

    I saw this Capriccio when it premiered in 2008 and it was probably the single greatest thing I’ve ever seen at the staatsoper (the audience and critics seemed to feel similarly). PERFECTLY cast with beautiful conducting topped of by a staggeringly beautiful production and personen-regie ideally calibrated to the score, making an opera which IMO can be kind of a slog regardless of how complex in might into a completely engaging evening. And as someone who usually doesn’t care for Fleming in her Strauss roles, the premiere of this run was one of the best things I’ve ever seen her do. She was the least inhibited I’ve ever seen her and the role sits better for her than either the Marschallin or Arabella.

    • Bill

      I saw this Vienna Capriccio with Fleming several times as well and it was probably the best performance I had
      seen her sing in a Richard Strauss Opera -- still her diction
      was not at all as clear as it should have been but she was less mannered than at the Met and it was a grand success for her (Denoke sings in the opera in Vienna next season)
      in an opera house where memories of Schwarzkopf, della
      Casa, Claire Watson, Felicity Lott, Anna Tomowa-Sintow and Gundula Janowitz still lingered from the previous production. I think I most appreciated Fleming in Floyd’s
      Susannah. I find Fleming’s very mannered Vier letzte Lieder of R. Strauss hard to endure, alas.

      • PCally

        I don’t care for Fleming in most Strauss roles because I think the problem is that the music sits so easily within her technical grasp that, more than in the music of most of the composers she sings, she’s more apt to slather on her interpretive mannerisms with more regularity so that the flow of the music if often distorted-IMO.

        I’m not a native speaker but I do know the language and I haven’t had any real problems understanding Fleming until recently when her voice began to fade a bit. Denoke is a native speaker and her diction can be just dicey as Fleming’s and unlike Fleming Denoke is often (in my experience with her) given to abandoning the text when things get high and loud. I think the Grafin train might be pulled out of the station with regards to Denoke. I don’t think the role per se will be too difficult for her but it’s not a very stable or attractive sound these days and while she’s still a beautiful woman, I’m kind of surprised to be seeing her adding this role, which requires a degree of vocal repose and elegance she has never really had, at this point in her career. I’m personally way more excited with the prospect of her Geschwitz as I prefer a lighter timbre in the role and I think her chic persona could do wonders in a role often butched up.

  • CwbyLA

    What does tapping the temple by an aging artists’ manager mean?

    • I suspect it is the manager’s comment on the artist’s intelligence.

      • I knew Renee really well for about a decade, and spent a dicey period with her in Bayreuth for her hail and farewell to the festival. I saw her every day for those weeks and often, otherwise. I knew all her managers — and can’t imagine any of them suggesting she was other than brilliant because she was. I also knew her first husband, her daughters as infants and toddlers, her family — especially sister, brother and father — and many people who had worked with her. I worked with her myself.

        So I don’t buy this. She was the most virtuosic musician I’ve ever seen among singers, truly a phenomenon, she was really smart about everything. Dumb people are not like that.

        If this is a true story than it’s a manager she left behind or chose not to go with. But I knew her first manager, the wonderful Merle Hubbard, very well. She did leave him for bigger management and he continued to worship her. As did his pals, Roddy McDowall and Charles Nelson Reilly, opera obsessives both who had heard her in LA where she had moved with her husband so he could try to be a professional actor. She had semi-given up then because of Elisabeth Schwarzkopf who had treated her so cruelly in master classes that she felt she really didn’t have the talent for a career. Then she found Beverely Johnson (mostly by accident) who rebuilt her voice to a degree but also her confidence (and she and Tony Griffey were the ones who kept watch at Ms. Johnson’s death bed.

        I lost interest in her around 2002 when it seemed to me she pulled back from her remarkable promise and some stunning achievements (including the Armida with Eve Q. in Carnegie hall which occasioned hysteria in a packed house), her La Straniera, the amazing Fiordaligi, and her phenomenal Sonnambula (she was the cover for Eve Q and I went to the cover performance).

        I was also on the Tucker jury the year she won, and she knocked us all for a loop, and that included the vicious Regina Resnik.

        But she decided to coo a lot, sing softly and save herself for the essential big moments. I understood her thinking and even sympathized. She was divorced by then with two dependent children, wanted to be sure she could earn and would last long enough to get them started in life. But I thought her Strauss was the dullest I’ve ever seen, the Violetta calculated and small scaled, the Pirata saved to the final scene. A great artist takes risks, that is destiny. She had done that for a decade and then stopped. In my mind she declined greatness, when it was really in her.

        But I am sick of the (often vicious) dismissals of what she had in favor of hysterical fan boy queen slobbering over nonentities. She was remarkable. And no one who knew her, or knew anything about singers would have suggested she was stupid in a million years.

        • My lunch companion was indeed Merle Hubbard, who I knew for many decades.

          • Don’t buy it, sorry. He was too smart to think that she was dumb. Period. He knew many singers (and actors) well, and understood that some have everything but intelligence. Maybe he meant something else. Or maybe some resentment of her leaving him for someone else who he didn’t like had caught up with him. But if he meant she was stupid or limited in mind he was wrong — I saw first hand too much evidence to the contrary.

        • PCally

          I saw both the Armida and the Fiordilgi. People who say she had no business singing bel canto clearly have never heard the Pesaro recording, which is staggering, and are going exclusively off of her post-2000 ventures. I thought that certain mannerisms and weird tempo and rhythm shifts plagued the Carnegie Hall performances (Queler is likely at fault here) but the sheer beauty and effortlessness of the sound was stunning and for someone who often could look uncomfortable onstage, I thought in concert she managed to summon up the requisite command and glamour the character must possess. The Fiordiligi, though plainly acted, was the single greatest sung interpretation of the role I have ever seen by a HUGE margin and much better than her commercial recording a few years earlier. The range was encompassed effortlessly; the coloratura, trills, and passage work literally perfect, and whatever she might have lacked as an onstage presence she made up for in musical and textual expressiveness. I’ve loved just about every singer I’ve seen live in this role and I WORSHIP Roschmann and Persson as overall packages, but for sheer vocalism I’ve never heard anyone come close to Fleming during the met run.

          And while I’m an overall Fleming agnostic, the sheer ability to learn as wide a repertoire as she did, not just standard rep but also music that would seem to require a greater degree of intellect and musicianship as opposed to simply having the technical ability, must preclude her from being classified as dumb.

        • Donna Annina

          Mrs. JC, she also has the makings of a fine teacher. We saw her do a master class at Aspen last July. She took her role seriously and treated the young singers as colleagues, not pointing out flaws as much as demonstrating how to take singing to a higher level. She was patient. committed, and clearly enjoyed what she was doing. And does she ever have a lot to share.

      • Bill

        Will -- in the Salzburg film of Rosenkavalier which was done to an already taped music, the singers were not actually singing. Hence Schwarzkopf was just acting (maybe overacting) and curiously, it was della Casa who sang all but one of the Salzburg Marschallin’s that summer of 1960 (Schwarzkopf did only one of the series also singing in Cosi and Don Giovanni and a lieder recital that Festival). In one interview I read, Schwarzkopf did say she had to alter her Marschallin from performance to performance depending upon who was the Octavian -- Jurinac, Ludwig or Seefried
        (she also sang with della Casa at the Met and
        a bunch of other Octavians here and there) so I doubt that Schwarzkopf was always so over calculated as the Marschallin -- great singers usually react to their partners on stage and of the say 20 Marschallins Schwarzkopf sang in Vienna,
        then a fully repertory house, there were different cast members practically in each performance and different conductors including Boehm and von
        Karajan and Krips -- under those circumstances no singer could be quite the same every time. Some of the singers Schwarzkopf frequently partnered in Rosenkavalier were very spontaneous on stage.
        I do find Fleming’s acting to be rather studied with a certain sameness from performance to performance in a run -- which made her Violetta, for example, rather dull -- I wonder why in the current Rosenkavalier at the Met during the 1st act
        portion with everyone on the stage at the Marschallin’s beck and call, the Feldmarschallin is seated almost the entire scene with her back to the audience in a chair where only the back of her head is visible -- one cannot see her reactions at all to what is swirling around her at the time. Is she stately ?, is she haughty ?, is she amused or
        bored ? -- all is lost to the audience. But why ?

        • PCally

          Just because Schwarzkopf said certain things about the role doesn’t make it so Bill. The existing recordings of her in the role past 1956 all sound the same to me in terms of interpretation. And her acting on the video is a hell of a lot more calculated than any performance I’ve ever seen of Fleming in this role. And when you add in the increasingly garbled diction, utter inability to sing legato, and general trouble with high notes, you have IMO a total joke, whatever so called golden age Viennese ensemble she may have been a part of .

    • La Cieca

      I knew Hubbard slightly and I know of him a good deal through speaking to a number of his colleagues.

      What I suspect he meant was that he didn’t think Fleming intuitively understood the character of the Marschallin, her ironic and sophisticated way of looking at the world.

      • I agree with all the above. But I think she’d understand perfectly the points being made, and understood them when she studied the role. But she always lacked theatrical flair and living in a character isn’t something she did easily. The Tatiana for TV (1999) which I was involved in and for which I went to every rehearsal was the closest she came to embodying a character and she worked very hard and also paid close attention to Hvorostovsky.

        However during the Manons at the Met in ’97 she had a lot of trouble with the staging. A lot of people (including Merle Hubbard) suggested things she might try and she met most suggestions with a sigh, saying, “I’m just not GOOD at that sort of thing”. An acting teacher might have suggested that she was both inhibited and a perfectionist, that it’s important to try different things and even fail at them to find what you can actually do.

        I always blamed Schwarzkopf who also attacked her physical appearance, although Fleming was a gorgeous young woman with wonderful blue eye. ES could not BEAR that such a being with so beautiful a voice and such musicianship existed.

        Auger had tried to persuade Fleming not to do the group of masterclasses with ES and afterward tried to comfort her. It was the worst mistake she made in her early career. (Auger told me that ES was the most damaging “teacher” she had ever encountered and she knew what she was talking about. She felt so vulnerable after different teaching/coaching experiences she essentially taught herself using what she had learned from a speech teacher who worked with people with vocal impairments from illnesses).

        But Fleming’s limits (either innate or self imposed) as a stage performer do not mean she was stupid, which you refute very intelligently.

        • Luvtennis

          Why on earth did so many singers subject themselves to such tortures with Madame Legge?

          i can just see la Schwarzkopf hovering menacingly over poor Renee with a drink in one hand and a ferule in the other taking every slight she had ever suffered out on the gifted, down to earth, very serious Renee. Like some 40s movie with Tallulah Bankhead and Ingrid Bergman.

          • PCally

            Reputation probably accounted for most of it. I’ve only seen small portions of videos of Schwarzkopf teaching and nothing that comes out of her mouth as far as I can tell shows any real signs of wisdom or technical know how. Maybe I’m just feeling sour today but outside of a few good years, I thought the bulk of Schwarzkopf’s recordings were mostly horrendous pitch challenged crooning that mostly highlighted her problems.

            • Bill

              Schwarzkopf, as we all know, began as a high soprano -- the early extracts of her Sophie and Gretel from 1947 indicate that her voice was fresh and agile. Hers was the first lieder recital I ever attended (while at college) and from that time I saw her in lieder almost every year until her retirement. To be honest I liked others better but she was very astute
              at building programs which emphasized her
              strengths (not much Brahms or Schumann
              actually). Many of the great conductors of her era continually worked with her. I suspect it was her (eventual) husband who
              severely aided in her interpretations which lent more and more a certain artificiality.
              I certainly like her Ariadne on record -- I suspect she herself was terribly self critical
              (aside from being ambitious, as we all know, We also know that she wasn’t necessarily popular with some of her compatriots in Vienna as she became known but most showed her considerable respect. From the earliest she had a bit of quaver in her voice unlike some of her rivals.
              That lends a certain fragility to the sound.
              Having been brought up listening to Flagstad recordings where there was not
              an iota of a quaver -- I prefer a straighter sound (and do til this day) -- but I do feel
              Schwarzkopf was an artist and she could
              produce some exquisite sounds -- I cannot say she is unrivaled in any particular role
              but her Capriccio is quite wonderful, some of her earlier Mozart and she had at least for a time a wonderful vocal control. I know many people on Parterre do not like Schwarzkopf (also for political reasons) -- but I did and do. So be it.

              in building her career).

            • PCally

              Sorry for the rudeness of my previous response, I did not mean to sound like I was deriding your taste and I think my the tone of my reply implied otherwise. I LOVE Schwarzkopf’s Salzburg Elvira’s and countesses under Furtwangler, where I find her vocal production to be much freer, the tone much fuller, and her interpretations vivid and immediate. I also like that Ariadne quite a bit, in part because she’s one of the few who actually seems to understand how sexual much of the language in the final duet is. And her early lieder recordings are wonderful. Past 1955 I just find that a lot of the freshness and ease left pretty quickly and a lot of what people tell me is interpretation sounds more to me like coping with reduced resources than anything else. That’s just my opinion but I find it infuriating hearing about her cruelty towards singers when much of what’s on record is technically wayward.

            • Bill

              PCally -- nothing for which to apologize -- we all have different tastes and you are absolutely correct, there were changes in
              the manner in which Schwarzkopf sang from her earliest years, her peak in the 1950s and
              then her later vocal utterances. My first ever hearing of Schwarzkopf was from that Presentation of the Silver Rose from 1947 and the Karajan Nozze di Figaro from 1950 though I preferred the voices of Seefried and Jurinac to that of Schwarzkopf as they had a straighter tone -- but at the time all 3 had
              beautiful voices and blended well with each other. There may well be singers who
              studied with Schwarzkopf in Master Classes
              who felt they benefited more than Fleming
              may have -- and yet, sometimes when listening to Fleming, she seems, in vocal style and mannerisms, to be imitating
              Schwarzkopf. The voices are definitely not quite the same and sometimes I wish
              Fleming would have tried to be more like
              Elisabeth Gruemmer -- completely unmannered -- just straight beautiful singing. Gruemmer (like Isokoski later on) was not a truly glamorous figure on the stage but with a very even voice, each could radiate in ways which some with more
              “artistic” vocal interpretations could not -- service to the music. Schwarzkopf was a controversial singer -- but so was Callas,
              so was/is Gruberova -- and indeed so
              is Fleming.

          • Bill

            From what I have seen on tape -- Schwarzkopf and Legge picked incessantly at the minutest things (probably just as Legge was always fussing with Schwarzkopf herself from the front line during rehearsals), constantly interrupting -- I am not sure a singer learns all that much from a limited number of master classes rather than from a steady teacher working with a young singer week by week and year by year.
            That said, Schwarzkopf was one of the most famous singers of her era (helped by an
            attractive recording contract) and I know
            many opera and concert goers at that time worshiped her and compared her favorably to all her rivals in her fach (and she had a lot of rivals from 1944 throughout the 1950s and 1960s in both opera, concerts and lieder and they often had to sing on stage together in Mozart and Strauss operas).

            I was unaware that Auger had studied
            a little with Schwarzkopf but if so, it shows
            that Schwarzkopf’s influence on the very natural Auger was not considerable. I remember seeing Auger do her first ever
            Marie in the Daughter of the Regiment in Vienna (auf Deutsch) and Auger sang delightfully in the freshest unmannered voice and was extremely spontaneous on stage amid a cast of well known veteran singers.

          • rhinestonecowgirl

            Probably it was a chance to be seen and heard at major events with press, agents and managements attending. I attended one of the classes at the Edinburgh Festival, and it was really dispiriting. Apart from having to face Frau Legge the young singers were in front of a very critical audience. Schwarzkopf rarely allowed them to sing more than a phrase before bearing down on them. She never really took either the inexperience of the singers or the goodwill of the audience towards them into account. And very few anecdotes to lighten the atmosphere. It was pretty chilling. Especially contrasted with the genial, but icily witty class I was so fortunate to attend with the great Birgit, evaluating in dollars each of Turandot’s money notes.

        • PCally

          Arleen Auger sounds like a saint lol

          • I remember quite vividly that Manon at the start of her death scene was perched on a high platform with steep twisting stairs going down inexorably to a garbage heap where she was to die. I went to the staging rehearsals for that (there weren’t many, it was a revival and Ponnelle was nowhere around) and it just baffled Fleming.

            She got that this was an encapsulation of Manon’s life, from a peak to the valley of darkness. But she didn’t know how to manage the stairs and Giordani was no help. The revival director tried hard but Fleming felt nervous and physically insecure on the steps. It was quite an impasse. Ponnelle was clever with singers and might have helped her but it was a very awkward moment. She was quite upset but I told her Vanness had looked pretty hung up too and not even the stage savvy Malfitano had managed the death well. And the latter was directed by Ponnelle. Only Soviero had pulled it off, mainly by seemingly collapsing down the stairs (while discreetly holding on to the railing).

            The Soviero/Hadley performance was the best iteration of that Manon — although Fleming sang it remarkably well.

            • PCally

              Thanks, I remember kind of liking the production even though I’m pretty sure it was uniformly trashed when it premiered. Something about Ponnelle’s work appeals to me, though his aesthetic isn’t necessarily something I would find interesting to look at in other contexts. A while ago I acquired all three films of the Monteverdi operas and while I know all three are divisive (and the camera work is absolutely bizarre) I thought all three were oddly compelling to watch and the singers carried over the weirdly stylized movements with total conviction. But perhaps that’s the kind of music that would suit his approach best.

        • Daniel Swick

          So THAT’S how she got that amazing technique. She always looked so relaxed when she sang.

  • I was in the Family Circle for Schwarzkopf’s Saturday January 1966 Matinee return to the MET as Donna Elvira, having finally arrived at the house in Rosenkavalier with good notices the previous season. From virtually the moment she opened her mouth, it was obvious that she was in vocal difficulty, and it didn’t improve as the afternoon progressed. She didn’t decide to withdraw in favor of a cover, and I almost felt sorry for her as it was a broadcast. Word was out the next day that she had cancelled her remaining Elviras and the run of Alice Ford for which she was also signed. I never understood why she even went on for that Don Giovanni — she must have known she wouldn’t get through it.

    • Will, it was said that she cancelled the Elvira. Bing called her and asked, “are you sure you want me to announce to all the people listening to the broadcast that we must cancel the opera today because Elisabeth Schwarzkopf has refused to sing?” She sang. It was bad for her and it was said that afterward she left the theater in tears went straight to the airport and got the first plane out. The horrific Herbert Breslin handled her American press and said she and Legge had been trying to get Bing to engage her for years. But according to him Bing waited until late in her operatic career and insisted on Donna Elvira in the hope she could no longer do it, at least in a big house like the Met. Se non è vero è ben trovato….

      • Well, isn’t THAT horrific! She had, however, done Rosenkavalier just over a year before in late December 1964 as her debut and I don’t remember poor reviews from the press about her voice. What you describe here is an intentionally set trap set by Bing to humiliate her. I know he loathed her, but what you describe is astonishing.

      • Bill

        It was well known that Bing had made some caustic comments about Schwarzkopf and cited Legge as a Jew (which I gather was not correct) and seemed not to want to engage her at all for a decade. Of her colleagues, Welitsch came to the Met in 1949 (prior to Bing) and he engaged Gueden in 1951 and Seefried and della Casa in 1953 and tried to obtain Jurinac in 1957 for the 1958 Vanessa but it did not work out. Schwarzkopf was indeed in the USA from 1953 with a lieder recital at Town Hall on October 25 a short time before della Casa and Seefried made their Met debuts. Schwarzkopf sang regularly in opera in San Francisco from Sept 1955 through 1964 and occasionally in Chicago and in other USA cities.
        There was hardly a year after 1953 that Schwarzkopf did not make at least one appearance (in concert) in New York through 1977. In the 1950s many of the world’s best singers wanted to sing at the Met -- but we never read there were any discussions between Bing and Schwarzkopf (or Legge or Breslin if he was her constant manager in the USA) until she came in to the Met in 1964.
        Schwarzkopf was known to be very ambitious in building up her career first in Berlin, then Vienna then London and La Scala and Salzburg so we all assumed she was not at the Met as she had not been asked by Bing.


  • Camille

    Jungfer Marianne, bitte — it’s halftime over at the Der Rosenkavalier Bowl and I am wondering if you could shed a little light on the specific sort of patois the Baron Ochs is engaging, as he is so funny, he puts a smile on my face after the interminable din of that second act, which I find so unfunny!

    I share a lot of the same feelings about Fleming, but in particular, I remember so very well the summer of 2007 when I heard a broadcast of the London Proms, I think it was, in which she sang those Korngold arias, and I swear, I was forced to drive to the side of the road and stop the car, it took me by such surprise and for how much they were beautifully sung. Especially that lush Das Wunder der Heliane! Had she only just sung thus, always! Also, saw that 2000 Resi and the less said the better, even if she did look so gorgeous and striking.

    That’s all and thank you so much for all you do to share. I always mean to get over to your cloud but I have so many streams of music going around here I am just flooded out, but I will get over to hear the Daphne, as I have become a convert since hearing it two summers ago. Danke wohl! (it wanted to say Danke wool!) Ciao!