In recent years, the 64-year-old soprano has drifted away from the core classical music repertoire, while also remaining cagey on the subject of retirement. She’s starred on Broadway, recorded the music of Björk and Death Cab for Cutie, and recently ventured back to the Met for the world premiere of The Hours by Kevin Puts.

When I last heard Fleming in recital, at Philadelphia’s Verizon Hall in 2017, the program toggled between opera arias, pop songs, and standards. Between numbers, she chatted with the audience, often reaching for a microphone secreted inside the belly of the piano. To call it a concert would probably be more accurate and appropriate.

By contrast, her evening in the Stern Auditorium featured the kind of set list you compile when you want to remind your audience that you’re a serious artist. Although Fleming exudes an effortlessly warm personality, and her adoring audience feels a natural connection going both ways, she kept direct engagement to an absolute minimum. Aside from announcing her encore—Schubert’s Ave Maria, rendered with touching simplicity—the only time she spoke was to apologize for entering the stage too early, accidentally robbing her accompanist, Evgeny Kissin, of a solo moment at the piano.

The printed program included more selections by Schubert, alongside Rachmaninov, Liszt and Duparc. Kissin, luxuriously cast as the second fiddle, was given his own musical interludes at the keyboard. The evening confirmed the remarkable preservation of Fleming’s voice and often played to her interpretive strengths, though without entirely banishing all of her self-indulgent characteristics.

Fleming relished the deeply romantic moods of Schubert’s Suleika I and Nur wer die Sehnsucht kennt, the fourth Lied der Mignon. I worried that amplitude might be a problem in the opening phrases of the former song, but Fleming quickly turned up the volume without pushing too hard, and she remained perfectly audible for the rest of the evening. But the playful staccato rhythm of Die Vögel and the galloping melody of Rastlose Liebe tested her dexterity, and her attempts to be funny sometimes came across as twee.

Liszt’s Über allen Gipfeln ist Ruh’ was performed with a contemplative stillness, and in Im Rhein, in schönen Strome, both Fleming and Kissin mirrored the sound of a babbling brook with their instruments. Although Fleming did not luxuriate in pianissimo high notes as she once might have, she showed no trouble floating them, and an unfamiliar listening could easily assume that her voice belongs to a woman fifteen years younger.

Two later Liszt selections, S’il est un charmant gazon and Oh ! Quand je dors, sounded curiously bland. They were paired with Duparc’s Extase, in which Fleming demonstrated the pleasant warmth of her middle voice, and Le manoir de Rosemonde, which was infused with genuine tension.

Kissin and Fleming each offered their own interpretation of Rachmaninov’s Lilacs—his a richly colored solo piano transcription, hers a beautiful but somewhat blank rendition of the original song. She seemed more comfortable with the feel-good energy of A Dream, which found her hazily leaning against the lip of the piano as the song reached its climax, almost like a jazz singer in a smoky nightclub.

When Kissin took center stage alone, you realized just how much value he contributed to the evening’s musical virtues. His unflaggingly beautiful tone, free employment of rubato, and peerless sense of line seem to come from another age. Liszt’s Sposalizio built in tension from a tender opening trill that resembled church bells to the passionate release of the finale. Spritely charm characterized the same composer’s Valse oubliée. He brought an improvisatory feeling to the Mélodie and Sérénade from Rachmaninov’s Morceaux de fantasie.

The next steps of Fleming’s career remain somewhat unclear. She canceled an opportunity to revisit one of her signature roles, Verdi’s Desdemona, with the Metropolitan Orchestra later this month, though she’ll return to the Met proper next spring in a revival of The Hours. She recently debuted Pat Nixon in Paris to strong reviews. No doubt she will continue to dip her toes into the waters of classical crossover. But the Carnegie recital confirmed that whatever path she takes, she still has more to give her clearly adoring public.

Photos: ©2023 Chris Lee