Cher Public

Renée! F!

This dress was not worn by Renée Fleming last night at Carnegie Hall, but the author fucking loves it anyway.

I fucking love Renée Fleming. And I don’t give a fuck if you don’t. 

I love her high, scoopy, trilly singing and her pushed-out, affected, chesty singing. I love that sensuous, whispery thing she does when trying to conjure sybaritic longing, and that impassioned, velar-plosive thing she does in all the Russian rep.

I love her pretentious “former jazz singer” pedigree, even though I kind of hate jazz. I love that jazz is what she’s pretentious about.

I love the dweeby, grade-grubbing bookishness she brings to her craft. Former Fulbright! I love her memoir, The Inner Voice, which is smart and insightful and not at all badly written and which contains so many self-deprecating bits about early efforts to cultivate her image, including this recollected exchange with publicist Mary Lou Falcone:

“She had her own suggestions: “I would like you to streamline the way you dress. Prints and cut velvet are not becoming to you, and you might like to consider giving away the coat you have on.”

God, I love how she sings everything with that same, fanatical earnestness that makes her appear at once superlative and annoying. She’s the Anne Hathaway of opera. I love her Mozart, e.g. her Glyndebourne Countess from 1994—swooning like a zealot the whole time, even when she’s supposed to be sad.

Really, I love her albums. I love how in many ways hers is the best kind of instrument for the digital optical disc data storage format: slightly treble, with tinny overtones that translate so seamlessly to the 44.1 kHz audio sampling rate. I love that when you play her CDs, you don’t have to watch her stagily mooning over Das Wunder der Heliane. You can simply feel your feelings alone on the treadmill because she sounds so fucking good.

I love her Schubert album with Eschenbach, how she spins out the end of “Du bist die Ruh’”. I love her way-overproduced Night Songs album, which I still feel is a perfect album even though it sounds like it might’ve been recorded in a dungeon.

Like everyone on the planet, I love Renée Fleming most in late-Romantic German and French. I actively don’t love her in Czech, but that’s only because I don’t much like Smetana and I don’t love Rusalka, and it saddens me that “Song to the Moon” is what people seem to want from her all the damned time, because “Song to the Moon” is such a fucking yawn of an aria.

I love that I Want Magic! album, on which she disgraces herself several times (e.g. “Glitter and Be Gay,” “My Man’s Gone Now”) but then sings Moore, Floyd, Menotti and Previn so transcendently you can almost forgive blips like, “purchased, as they were, at such an awwwwfool cust.” I love how her rendition demonstrates precisely why Candide is all Richard Wilbur’s fault.

I fucking love her droopy right eye—half wink, half amblyopia—that welcomes us into to her liquid realm of extremely mannered emotion. I equally love that droopy, idiosyncratic English accent Renée Fleming gets when singing in her native tongue. I don’t know what on earth that accent is. She sounds Bavarian.

I love her failures, like that misguided 2002 Pirata at the Met, a role she cherry-selected for herself and then (so one hears) got sick singing. I love how the more you take in certain presumed failures—e.g. her Bjork outing—the more you realize those failures are in fact secret treasures, like an orchestra of sapphires. I love how she’ll never retire. I love that she’s down for a Carousel revival. She won’t be any good in it. I’ll go twice.

I loved Dark Hope, after all.

No, she didn’t wear this fucking wig either.

I love that even though it’s so fucking hip to hate her, her recitals sell out fast—like in less than a week! At Carnegie Hall two nights ago, she was joined onstage by the (somewhat swoony himself) pianist Inon Barnatan, who helped her introduce a program of Brahms, Previn, Caroline Shaw, Egon Kornauth and Strauss. I fucking loved it.

I love that at a Fleming recital, you get both Previn and Caroline Shaw in the audience. I love that pixie-wunderkind Caroline Shaw was sitting in such proximity to me, I could pick out the needlework on her (CdG?) harem pants.

I love Renée’s fashion sense so much. No more cut velvet for this Rochester native! She wore two gaudy dresses to accompany the changing moods of her concert: first a slick, black sequined number that seemed to be made of mercury for jejune Brahms and yucky Previn, and then, after intermission, a silver-sparkle drape-dress with pink trim and a flip-cape tucked so bizarrely up, my co-attendee was inspired to spend three minutes coining the perfect describer. We couldn’t decide between “origami cupcake” and “vagina kimono.” I love both.

I loved how the thematics of the program played to her lyrical strengths—i.e. romanticism through the ages. It started with a Brahms set, which I didn’t love because she sang too much lieder with too much refined sameness and the characterizations felt insecure and unfinished. There was some gorgeous legato quilling at the end of “Mondnacht” and some blue-ribbon over-emoting at the end of “Junge Lieder I.” I loved the multiple cell phones that went off during the Wiegenlied. I fucking love people who are too busy for Brahms.

I do not love Yeats, I’ve decided. Previn’s chromatic romanticism did some interesting things for one-off poetic shanties like “The Fiddler of Dooney.” I know there was a song about a brown penny that I couldn’t make heads or tails of. (See what Yeats is already doing to my comedy?) I love that Renée Fleming followed these up with a dreamy, impressionistic Previn aria from Streetcar. I tend to love how she sings about anything related to dreams, nights, and haunted things. Her sound trains on the ceiling and seeps out like mist.

I love that she saved the best material for the recital’s second half, when we got the world premiere of two new songs by Caroline Shaw, with lyrics by American poet Mary Jo Salter. I fucking love Caroline Shaw, too, even though I hate that her mere being serves an irritating reminder of how Pulitzer-less and un-Kanye-cool I still am, especially since she’s exactly my age.

I love that Shaw now writes beautiful, confessional chansons about lights and unraveling marriages that perfectly suit Renée Fleming’s middle range. Wordless humming at the end of the first song, “Aurora Borealis,” stunned the audience and was ingenious. The second, about a failed relationship, was somehow also harmonically romantic, conjuring Debussy and chilling us with lines like “night after night, a man/whose life became about/the fear of being found out.”

I love Renée Fleming’s itch to curate her own recitals with normcore works by new composers. I don’t always love the outcome. Last year at Carnegie Hall it was all about Patricia Barber and her big ol’ jug of snooze soda. This year, though, in addition to lovely Caroline Shaw, we got a song set by little-known Moravian Egon Kornauth, whose four romantic works from Sechs Lieder nach Eichendorff (1932) evoked brooks, lost youth, and rustling trees.

I love Kornauth, even though his current obscurity might have a little to do with the fact that he’s kind of a bootleg Franz Schmidt.

I love that Renée Fleming’s vagina cape came down for this part of the program.

I love that I’m still not sure if it came down or fell off. (Ru-veal or Ré-veal?)

And I fucking loved her encores, even the fucking Song to the Fucking Moon.

  • If you like I’ll take the Dvorak and leave you RF.

  • Dame Kenneth

    I fucking loved this article by Mr. Rozen!

  • Kullervo

    Yeah…..this is probably my favorite review ever.

    I was listening to this video a few weeks ago and, midway through, thought “I bet some queen is making fun of this.” I know… it’s opera fandom, if we aren’t reading famous singers we aren’t doing it right. And yes, Renee has given us a lifetime of missteps to make fun of.

    But listen….your fave could fucking NEVER, okay?
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-7AfM_Mxm1Q

    • Kullervo

      Need to add: I fucking loved “Living on love” and would have seen it again if it hadn’t closed so soon. I find it rather shocking that the ludicrous ’33 Variations’ did so well by comparison.

  • CwbyLA

    Mr. Rozen needs to write on Parterre more often!

  • Greg Freed

    I love that this review contained the term “velar plosive”!

    • Greg Freed

      I mean ok, yes, every language I can think of has velar plosives. But perhaps the way back vowels in Russian make them especially impassioned.

  • iidiotboxx

    Parterre needs more of this – super fresh, unpretentiously insightful, flamboyantly homosexual, hil-fucking-arious. Loved this.

    • fletcher

      Have the rest of us been butching it up or something?

      • Armerjacquino

        We need to bring more of that manic homosexual glee.

        • fletcher

          And/or depressive homosexual snark

  • DerLeiermann

    She wore that same dress when I saw her in recital earlier this year.
    You can tell she keeps her gay friendsTM close.

  • Porgy Amor

    You’ve got style, sir, even if we part company on Rusalka.

  • Rosina Leckermaul

    I f--ing agree!

  • Torna Ulisse

    Thank you Joel and thank you, chere LaC. You don’t know how much I needed this in my life just now! Something to make my mind laugh as well as my diaphragm…

  • Armerjacquino

    This is everything.

  • PATRICK MACK

    I fucking love this review. Bravo.

  • grimoaldo2

    hahaha briliant
    Witty and entertaining and informative, well done!

  • Camille

    JR,
    i Am SO F***=ing RELIEVED you loved it, too!!!!

    I have been on tenterhooks and biting my nails to a quick since La Cieca commanded me to keep my piehole shut as she had a review coming on down the pike on her fave diva, RF. I had been a’shudderin’ and a’quakin’ in my boots as to what kind of review it might be. Because —-- against all odds and against everything I formerly believed to be true, she was just so wonderful — and was so glad I’d made a very last minute decision to go, and chiefly because of my nosiness regarding this guy KORNAUTH! Who the Hell was HE??? I just had to find out that — and to hear RF’s Ariadne, too!

    She was, so far as I was concerned, on her best, best behavior. The ticks and tricks that mar that prettiest of voices from time to time were just not in evidence, at all. It’s as if she had listened to a poll of parterrians most severe complaints and taken them all to heart. Not even my favorite gripe, that pseudo-Southern fried cornpone accent she puts on for doing her Blanche. She managed to rein it in so it (almost) sounded like English! About the songs, too, I found the Previn quite tolerably nice and brief, as the Caroline Shaw (I was expecting a much longer work from her). That sixth interval she lifted off up into at the end of the Streetcar aria, I forget the words but did they matter anyway?, was just what it’s all about, a bath in beauty.

    Kornauth she did a real SOLID for, as those were lovely, lovely late Romantic (well, they were actually into the early Nazi period so I don’t know what in hell they would be considered), but threading them from a needle with Brahms, and I am a little peeved Vous n’aimez pas Brahms!, was perfect even if the real reason I was there was for her Ariadne.

    But I must first, in Dr Botstein fashion, digress. The DRESS. Yes, THAT Dress. WTF has she done this time is the first thought I had, and then turned it over and over and around and upside down in my mind, and soon, lo a light dawned from over the east — that is to say, I think she may have gotten an inspiration for that muff-ruff thingey bobber that she had on over the dress, from a picture OF THE ORIGINAL ARIADNE AUF NAXOS COSTUME. Go look at the original drawings, and it’s even made it to an album cover or two, too, thinking the old one with Leonie/Leinsdorf. You’ll see what I mean. What was so queer was that she chose to take it OFF after the opening numbers and then for the actual Ariadne sequence, she didn’t sport it, which I felt was a shame. Maybe by then it had made her glow with perspiration, much as Miss Rita Hayworth “glowed”. Ask Welles. I don’t know.

    Any old way — the Ariadne, which I so wanted to be the highlight, wasn’t. And not for lack of singing, certainly, but just for a lack of not having INHABITED THAT CHARACTER sufficiently, or long enough, or lovingly enough. That she was a little disappointed was indicated by her remarks, saying to the effect she hoped we all didn’t mind her singing this scene and aria “Wo war ich…? “Ein schönes war, Theseus-Ariadne”, and “Es gibt win Reich”, in a recital and that she’d only sung it once in fact, and that it was usually sung by a dramatic soprano. Well—--yes and no to that, as the original soprano was Maria Jeritza, who at that stage of the game, 1912, was likely a more lyric singer, and Dr Strauss orchestrated this work the first time around for a vastly smaller orchestra — 20-35 pieces, correct me if I am wrong. So, no—it may most certainly be sung by someone of her vocal means. Lisa della Casa, Elisabeth Schwarzkopf? Certainly Daphne is much MORE a challenge, and that was certainly first done by dramatisches Sopran. Other than that, lack of identification with the persona, it was sung well over all, if just a tad bit out of her comfort zone and betraying a little registrar weakness in mid-voice.

    Whereas, Mr JR, you f***=ing hate Rusalka, I just f***=ing ADORE it, and I adore it because almost twenty=seven years ago to this day, it was on either 30 or 31st October 1990, I first heard this opera and it was she who sang it with the prettiest, and pearliest voice one could ever imagine. I went to hear it once more, then recorded it, and listened over and over again to that perfect pearl of a voice in this beautiful score, until one fine day, I taped over it with a recording of Benackova thinking it would sound more authentic. Maybe more authentic but I had lost that pearl of great price. Never the same.

    In all these years she has driven me, after that initial exposure to her voice, f***-ing bonkers, with all the stuff she’s done to her singing, and I won’t go into it all for the rap sheet is longer than my arm. I’m so happy you mentioned that misfired Pirata cannonball, which, had she sung her formidable Armida from her early glory days, it would have been better by far Thank god she never did do that Norma, and too bad she didn’t sing her Straniera or Sonnambula instead of Pirate. See Peter G. Davis for the final word on THAT one.
    MAH~!

    So, for all of this, and all her sins of omission, just somehow went into limbo the other night. I couldn’t f***-ing BELIEVE it!!! It made me SO happy!!! ALL that time melted away and I was back where I started out with that darling little bundle. When she went into the Rusalka aria, which I’d not expected, my ancient dry eyes just started to tear up, for I was transported magically back in time to all those years before. It was magic, and only a greatly gifted soul could make time stop still and distill this.

    The encores were:

    first, one of her specialties first, Strauss’s “Cäcilie”,

    second, her tribute to the recently departed Miss Barbara Cook, “There were bells on the hills…” the song from The Music Man which Paul McCartney made famous….and she remembered Miss Cook most fondly and to her own credit,

    and third and last. and always most importantly for her — was
    the aria by which I, and the rest of the world, shall always remember her most fondly and most very, very dearly, that loveliest invocation to the Moon, in a role which, unlike Ariadne, she INHABITED, and had lived to the fullest. There is very good reason the Metropolitan Opera hangs a huge portrait of her in this very role within its halls.
    As Miss Cook effectively did, may she please never retire, but keep on dispensing her moonbeams for the hungry dew-starved souls of mankind.

    • I fucking loved reading your take, and treasured hearing her Ariadne, even if she wasn’t totally up for it. I think we all held our breath a bit during the “Du wirst mich befreien,” but she acquitted herself well enough. I love that she controls my respiration now. How fucking fitting

      • Camille

        Mr JR—
        Forgeef, as Vera Galupe-B. would implore us —
        for I know not what I do and did not intend to poach on your preserve, its just that…I don’t know how to stop once I start.

        It suddenly occurred to me today who RF actually is: she’s an operatic Donna Reed, of “The Donna Reed Show”, from the late fifties and early sixties. She really IS that nice and all-American and wholesome—all stuff that’s waaaaaaay UN-kewl. It’s so real, I sat there and wished she’d bring me milk and cookies the other night. She didn’t, but she did bring it, and for that I was glad.

        https://youtube.com/watch?v=3QGi9XR7cBQ

        I admire your defiance in this lion’s den of Renée-Haße. That takes guts. And I’m so happy that it all turned out all right for us. When I looked up at the magic circle of lights on the ceiling of Carnegie, I felt so happy, for once. Home at last, with Mom, milk and treats.

    • CwbyLA

      Camille, so beautifully written. Thank you. You and Mr Rozen made the recital come alive.

    • Bill

      Camille -- when was it that women recitalists began to
      change their dresses during the intermissions of the recital?.
      I saw many many Schwarzkopf lieder recitals and she never changed her dress, nor did Streich, nor Seefried, nor
      Christa Ludwig nor de los Angeles etc. Even a glamorous singer such as Bumbry did not change her dress at her 1960’s lieder recitals. (usually confined to one composer per evening). The first I recall seeing a change of dress at the intermission was a recital done by Anna Moffo and that was a rare exception at the time. But when it came time for bows after her recital Moffo all but ignored her accompanist and left him (except once) seated at the piano as she took her bows.
      Once Delores Ziegler gave a lieder recital in NYC and her
      designated dress did not arrive at the concert hall at the start of her recital and she sang the first half in a brown pants suit (her street clothes) and she apologized for her appearance but prior to the intermission, her dress apparently did show up and she wore it for the second half
      to delighted applause.

      • Camille

        Bill geliebter--
        You know, I just do not know!!

        Have tried and tried to remember when and how things may have changed but don’t remember exactly when the worm turned. They all have to show a lot of flesh these days and the dresses always have to be such statements and usually they misfire. It’s so hard to be objective and know what actually looks good and not what one imagines looks good. I don’t know what to say, exactly, but if you remember La Moffo changing, well then, it has been going on for a while.

        Now, remember the Schwanewilms red dress? I thought it worked so very well even though ordinarily red isn’t a color for recitals. It made her the true focal point--and considering the rather stern nature of that recital, one’s mind did not wander and she did wear it throughout. What a great recitalist she is! I hope she would be back but don’t really expect it.

        I’m trying to recall if these Weill Recitals I’ve been to have changed their dresses but I stomp out at the intermission most of the time so don’t know for sure and don’t even remember Miah Persson’s Zankel Hall appearance, and there I managed to stay through it all. I guess I don’t care all that much and most of them are fashion disasters of one sort of another so I just think of the music. Renée is always fun, though, as she invariably does something, ah, highly individual. And always with the huge, clunky-chunky lower than chin length, arts and craftsy earrings.

        In all my life the most wonderful concert dress was that which Gwyneth Jones floated onto the stage in Die Aegyptische Helena when she sang it with Antal Dorati. I remember it as the album cover and she looked magnificent! Waltraud Meier wore a very red dress in the second act of the Carnegie Tristan und Isolde which really knocked people out! That was fun!

        Let’s face it--caftans and pup tents are the usual stage wear and those are just not that interesting. Oh yes, there was Carol Vaness as Cleopatra in the Barber opus, with her dress slit up to her thigh and she really pulled it off. Maybe I should say she carried it off, instead?

        I heard the beloved de los Àngeles once and she wore one frock. Shirley Verrett, a noble and dignified figure, did not change, either. Miss Gracie just came on and sang the Wesendonck Lieder, so there was no time to change before “Ach! Wie wunderbare Träune”, so I don’t know…I just don’t know, but I betcha Miss Geraldine Farrar or Miss Olive Fremstad would have given us a great big fashion feast straight out of Paris with the kind of stage savvy they both had, clever ladies that they both were.

        Tschüß!

      • dajhilton

        I think it changed about the same time that they started crediting the designer in the program. :)

    • dajhilton

      When she sang her only Ariadne, in Baden-Baden, with Thielemann it was definitely with the smaller reduced orchestra. And in the house, it was truly thrilling.

  • DW

    This fucking pretty much sums up La Phlegming for me…sickening highs and dizzying lows…that awful woozy Bel Canto album that I could not listen to more than 10 minutes of contrasted against a sublimity in some Strauss etc that will remain with me forever. She opened last season of the TSO, and it was wretched, she sang mostly show tunes; she even pointed a merry pirouette at us, and did that mic extension thing pop singers do when they want the audience to sing along (plus she sang with a goddam MIC.) Everything that pisses you off about her was displayed so unabashedly it was obscene. But I’ve seen her do so much better, Strauss VLL, even Rhodelinda, the Carnegie Hall “Armida” from 1990-whatever. You never know what you’re going to get with her. Remember she interpolated a high G at La Scala and got booed? I thought, “quite right…shitty taste.” Remember she announced Norma at one time, and she then explained later, “…no.” Basically I feel slightly cheated because it is a gorgeous instrument but the taste is…varied, to say the least. So I get the desire to wallow in it. She DID give me a few diva moments, I’ll give her that.

  • Rick

    Great review -- but very dispappointed, Mr Rozen, that we did not get to read if and how and why and to what extent you loved or did not love Ms Fleming’s Ariadne.

  • Kenneth Conway

    Not all obsessions are “hip.”

  • Evenhanded

    Well.

    Fucking fantastic feast of a Fleming review. Thank you! (BTW, I fucking love her, too. Always have. Always will.)

  • Thanks for one of the most entertaining reads I’ve had in ages. I disagree about Rusalka but agree about Song to the Moon — one of the most boring of the top 20 soprano arias.

    • Bill

      Kashania -- why is the ‘Song to the Moon’ boring ? -- it is a grateful aria in a most beautiful opera -- perhaps not so technically demanding as many others but a true test of limpid tone (my favorite, Benackova, the voice just flowed out and I always thought that Rusalka was one of Fleming’s better roles along with Floyd’s Susannah ).

      • Bill, it’s strictly a personal response. There’s nothing wrong with the aria. It has a lovely main melody, has a nice structure, and evocative orchestration to accompany it. It just doesn’t grab me. There are other arias that I’ve heard too many times but which still move me. This one isn’t one of them.

        • Porgy Amor

          It is a bit overexposed as a bon-bon these days, and there have been some bad stand-alone performances of it even before the wider world started doing the whole opera. (I shudder at Grandma Milanov’s.) On the other hand, it is a piece people hear that makes them ask, “What is that?” as happened when it was used in Driving Miss Daisy (the screen version). It is how a lot of people came to Rusalka.

          I just reject the idea that it’s the best thing in Rusalka (I would nominate the final duet for the tenor/soprano), or the only reason to do the opera. It is characteristic of the rest of it.

          We were talking in another thread about Carmen, and the way I feel about that is that when I see a good Carmen, I forget that I am sick of all the popular numbers. Which I am. I am sick of every one of them. But they mean more when the connective tissue is in place, so I always have a better time at that opera than I think I am going to have. And I enjoy the Song to the Moon in a good performance of the opera.

          • Camille

            Oh I love Grandma Milanov’s version for the most part--it’s just that the final phrase sounds like “Pace, pace mio Dio”, It’s so infernally loud! Maybe she got her cue cards crossed.

            But then,
            I f***=ing love Zinka,
            Too.

  • Charles Coleman

    But how do you REALLY feel? :)