In the orchestra rehearsal room at the Metropolitan Opera one wintry morning in 1988, a flock of fresh, youthful National Council Auditions finalists gathered together to rehearse for their annual concert on stage. From the first violin section of the orchestra I particularly noticed among them a poised, beautiful young woman with a remarkable aura, whose first notes filled the unforgiving acoustics of the room with a golden glow. I turned to my stand partner and said, “This one is special.”
Her name was Renée Fleming.
Over the next few years I watched with pleasure as this gifted soprano began to develop, and eagerly awaited her Met Opera debut. I was delighted when, in 1991, as a last minute replacement for an undisposed soprano, Renée Fleming dazzled the Met audience as the Countess in Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro, a role that suited her perfectly. Thus began Ms. Fleming’s meteoric rise, establishing her place among the most prominent opera singers of the world to become today’s leading operatic soprano.
There has likely been no superlative spared in describing Renée Fleming’s extraordinary vocal beauty and musical presence, not to mention her far-reaching effect on the world at large. Renowned Manhattan chef Daniel Boulud placed her in the legendary pantheon of desserts dedicated to superlative talent by creating “La Diva Renée,” a fantasy confection worthy of a queen. Vogue Magazine described her as “… the most gorgeous and busiest opera star on the circuit… America’s favorite soprano.”
But most of all Ms. Fleming’s incomparable artistry brings to mind the words of Friedrich Nietzsche, who called Mozart’s Don Giovanni “…a work without blemish, of uninterrupted perfection.” Ms. Fleming’s performance Saturday night embodied Nietzsche’s phrase to the letter.
The event was a special fundraiser for San Diego Opera’s Bravissimo Campaign for Artistic Excellence, dedicated to preserving the highest artistic quality as well as stability of San Diego Opera as it approaches its 50th Anniversary in 2015. That Ms. Fleming chose to grace the stage on this occasion is a testament to her commitment, not only to help ensure that SDO will be able to continue to engage top-notch singers and produce the highest quality performances, but to promote the cause of excellence in opera throughout America.
Last evening marked Ms. Fleming’s first return to San Diego Opera since she appeared as Tatiana in Eugene Onegin in 1994 and in the title role of Rusalka in 1995. From her very first notes the audience in the Civic Theatre, delighted to welcome her back, was transfixed. Her chosen repertoire reflected endless versatility, from operatic arias and Broadway melodies to alternative and indie rock numbers. In between selections she showed her natural talent for the spoken word with clever, entertaining anecdotes and lighthearted banter.
Her selected arias started right off with Italian favorites. What a luxury to be treated to both of Mimi’s arias (and a meltingly beautiful high “A”) from Puccini’s La Bohème, and two selections from the rarely heard Leoncavallo version, that demonstrated Ms. Fleming’s dramatic flair for the dramatic and capricious. She followed these with “Endlessly” from British alternative band Muse, Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” and “Soul Meets Body” by indie rock band Death Cab for Cutie. As last evening’s conductor Sebastian Lang-Lessing has said, the program was not just “old favorite goodies…” but also “quite interesting (and unusual) repertoire.”
Broadway dominated the second half of the concert, with excerpts from the gloriously familiar (Bernstein, Rodgers & Hammerstein, Sondheim, Lerner & Loewe) and lesser known (Rupert Holmes), all of them sung with extravagant aplomb. Those who yearned for a Fleming high “C” were not disappointed: she tossed one off with ease at the end of “I Feel Pretty.” Crowd-pleasing encores included an exquisite O Mio Babbino Caro.
Always ready to embrace new directions in music, Ms. Fleming, who helped pay her way through college by singing jazz, admits to an affinity for rock music. Her 2010 album Dark Hope is a radical departure from classical style. She notes that those accustomed to her soprano tessitura might be surprised at the low range in which she sings these rock songs, but says that “above the staff” she can only reproduce a full-bodied operatic sound. She admits to taking a risk with Dark Hope, in which her two teenage daughters appear as backup vocalists, but was delighted with the positive critical response. “No risk, no gain,” she said in an interview at the time. Last night’s audience reaction reflected that positive “buzz” with their enthusiastic reception to the above-mentioned rock selections. There is no question in my mind that Renée Fleming can rock.
In his SDO debut, Maestro Lang-Lessing led the San Diego Symphony in this extraordinary event. Having received critical praise for his first season as Music Director of the San Antonio Symphony, the German native, a Ferenc Fricsay Prize recipient, began his career as resident conductor of the Deutsche Opera Berlin, and has appeared with Opéra Bastille de Paris, Los Angeles Opera and other major companies in Europe and the US. The maestro, who has been leading this year’s tour with Ms. Fleming, has called her “… a diverse artist… one of the voices of the century that just make you melt away.” On the podium last evening he showed his expertise and versatility: from Verdi’s fiendishly difficult I Vespri Siciliani Overture to Ms. Fleming accompaniments, the maestro’s crystal-clear stick technique and expansive gestures astutely characterized the music’s tone throughout.
Ms. Fleming had careful guidance in her musical training from a young age. Her parents, who were music teachers, started schooling her early on. She says she has always embraced criticism in her musical journey and claims to still be learning to master her instrument. To my ears, her performance last night belied that assertion. How privileged we all were to watch and listen breathlessly while this flawless artist regaled us with her musical brilliance.
Truly, Renée Fleming is an artist “without blemish…of uninterrupted perfection.”
Photo Credit: Jonathan Tichler