Opera + Classical Music Reviews

Renée Fleming @ Royal Festival Hall, London

3 November 2009

Southbank Centre

Southbank Centre (Photo: India Roper-Evans)

Renée Fleming may be one of the most sought after sopranos in the world, but has she really started to charge for her singing by the minute? Well, presumably not, but it would at least explain why her entire contribution to the evening consisted of five generally short arias, and just one encore, ‘O mio babbino caro’.

Officially, the evening constituted a recital rather than an orchestral concert because Fleming’s name was billed above that of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and its conductor, Charles Dutoit. In practice, however, the latter took centre-stage for just as long as it supported the vocalist.

Looking beyond this, the evening broadly explored opera arias based upon themes to which more than one composer has applied music, such as Romeo and Juliet or La bohème. This helped us to make meaningful comparisons between some well and lesser known works, and took us on a journey through a wide range of potent human emotions.

Fleming was at her best when performing Tatyana’s Letter Scene from Eugene Onegin. With her rich vibrato voice that could knock you flat from a hundred yards, her performance was captivating as every fibre of her body went through the emotional pains of writing a letter to one whom she longs to spurn for his past wrongdoings, but ultimately cannot fail to love. Even her Vivienne Westwood dress supported her performance, with one sleeve descending into a sash that she frequently clutched at in anguish.

Fleming’s subsequent ‘Musette svaria sulla bocca viva’ from Leoncavallo’s La bohme was rather too short to allow her to excel, but she was in superb form when taking on Musette’s Mimi Pinson, la biondinetta from the same opera. One sensed that this was a part she was ideally suited to playing, genuinely impressed by the feisty Mimi, but still singing her praises from the position of believing she will always have the measure of her.

‘Nel suo amore rianamata’ from Umberto Giordano’s Siberia gave the opportunity for Fleming to explore another intriguing character in Stephana, whilst rarely have I heard operatic screams of despair sound quite so musical as in her performance of Manon’s ‘Sola, perduta, abbandonata’ from Puccini’s Manon Lescaut.

The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra broke up the second half of the concert with a strident and accomplished performance of the Fantasy Overture from Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet, and was also the sole act in the first half, performing thirty-eight minutes worth of excerpts from Prokofiev’s eponymous ballet.

In the absence of any dancing, Dutoit took the opportunity to interpret the music freely, unconstrained by the need for it to support ballet steps, but still succeeded in using it to convey a strong sense of the narrative and drama. The undoubted highlight was the Death of Tybalt in which the incredible rhythmic precision, made glaringly obvious through the pounding drum, imbued the scenario with an almost unearthly gravity.

All in all, it was a disappointment that Fleming did not grace the stage for longer, but what she did sing was superb, and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra’s own performances were sufficiently strong to make their pieces feel like far more than just numbers to fill up the time.

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