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