Only on a few, really magical occasions deserve five stars. Those with a special quality, a level of sublime expression, something riveting that only comes along a few times a year and can truly be described as ‘one of the great nights’. Well, this astounding recital by American soprano Renée Fleming at the Barbican Hall, London, was just that.
The programme alone deserves praise. With her sensitive accompanist Hartmut Höll, Fleming took us on an exploration of music ranging from 1681 to 2000, thereby eschewing the predictable song repertoire of many a jet-setting operatic superstar I could mention.
Perhaps the tone wasn’t quite focussed nor the voice quite warmed up sufficiently in the opening cantata by Henry Purcell, The Blessed Virgin’s Expostulation (1693), but the sense of drama was vivid. Those slight qualms were easily forgiven because Fleming brought to life the anxiety of Christ’s mother when the true nature of his Godhood has become apparent with sincere emotion. The cries of ‘Gabriel! Gabriel!’ were heart-rending and the final line sung with an unnerving chill: ‘I trust the God, but Oh! I fear the child!’.
The Barbican had printed some of the wrong words for one of the songs in the second set, which was rather distracting. ‘Sweeter than roses’ was a taxing start; but the final of the four arias, again by Purcell, found Fleming in ideal voice, which she maintained for the rest of the evening.
The modern American composer George Crumb’s Apparition was an unexpected climax to the first half of the concert (whose programme had not been announced in advance). Its experimental score, in which the pianist has to brush his fingers over the strings to create reverberations, was most welcome as a contrast to the purity of the Purcell.
Fleming seemed amazingly comfortable with the unconventionality of the performing conditions. She carried off the part which requires her to whisper inside the piano lid convincingly, and the final line of the text, which is mouthed but not spoken or sung, held the audience in rapt attention. The bravas were deserved, and it was gratifying to find the audience (which included the baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky and the concert pianist Mitsuko Uchida) appreciative of her inspired repertoire.
After the interval we heard a melancholy song entitled ‘The Giraffes go to Hamburg’, written for Fleming by her friend and colleague Andre Previn in 2000. It tells the sad tale of two Giraffes sent from their native Mombasa to a zoo in Hamburg, there to be emotionally suffocated. I was a bit dubious about the literal evocation of Africa by the use of a solo flute (the excellent Daniel Pailthorpe) with the piano and soprano. It seemed rather twee when Previn’s soundworld is otherwise controlled and sophisticated, if a little predictable after a while. In Fleming’s hands though, the song was almost tear-jerking, because she enunciated the words so clearly.
And all credit to Previn for dealing with the issue of animals in captivity in such a direct way – this sort of song proves that classical music can be relevant to the world at large.
Berg’s Altenberg Lieder, premiered in 1913 but never heard in their full orchestral form until 1953, provided the centre point of the second half of the concert. An unfortunate mistake occurred when the pianist turned over two pages at once and started the fifth song before the fourth, which Fleming corrected – it made the audience a little restless, unfortunately. A shame, because the evocations of images like the soul and peace in these five short songs were well projected by the singer in flawless German.
The inevitable treat of the concert was the final group – seven songs by Robert Schumann taking Fleming back into the repertoire one associates with her. All seven were sung with clarity, showing off her beautiful sound. The sustained legato lines of ‘Mondnacht’ showed enviable breath-control; ‘Hauptmans Weib’ and ‘Hochländisches Wiegenlied’ contrasted high energy with a haunting lullaby; and the wordiness of ‘Aufträge’ was expertly overcome, allowing the comedy to shine through. The best was saved until last: closing the programme, ‘Stille Tränen’ brought forth the singer’s trademark magic, which is to say, the most luxurious sound in opera today.
As if all that wasn’t enough, three contrasting encores were offered. One of Berg’s Seven Early Songs was close to the Strauss Lieder for which Fleming is renowned, in both substance and performance. ‘I Want Magic!’ from Andre Previn’s A Streetcar Named Desire was powerfully detailed, no doubt because it was originally written for the diva; and to send us home, a radiant, almost mind-blowing rendition of Mariettes Lied from film composer Korngold’s opera, Die todte Stadt.
Fleming’s stature in terms of the history of opera has occasionally been called into question, but this exhausting two and a half-hour recital – the first of many in an international tour – will surely confirm that she is one of the all-time greats. She has a special voice, an intelligent approach, and in her welcome and farewell speeches, she revealed her humanity and modesty as well. I only hope we can hear more of her in London in the future.