When this CD came out in 2010, it was greeted with quite a lot of suspicion, but the combination is really less strange than you think. Nowadays, Fleming is mainly associated with Mozart and Strauss, but her career began with singing (among others) Bellini, Donizetti and Rossini.
Fleming grew up in a musical family; both her parents were singing teachers. It was also her mother, who gave her her first singing lessons. She achieved her first major success in 1988 in Houston, as the Contessa in Nozze di Figaro, but her international breakthrough came in 1993, when she performed Armida at the Rossini festival in Pesaro, a role she subsequently repeated at Carnegie Hall. She has also not only recorded, but also performed scenically, the lead roles in Maria Padilla, La Sonnambula, Il Pirata and Lucrezia Borgia.
“When I started singing, I thought bel canto operas were the foundation of every singer’s repertoire. All the singers I admired then: Sutherland, Callas, Caballé, Sills, Scotto sung them. It was quite shocking to discover that in the professional world of opera there was such a thing as a ‘Mozart/Strauss soprano’, and that that soprano never sang bel canto.”
“If I had to count them, there are seven complete bel canto roles I have sung live. I learnt most of them in the early years of my career, when I often worked with Eve Queler. But I also learnt a lot from Montserrat Caballé. We sang together in Il Viaggio a Reims and we discussed the repertoire many times. Marilyn Horne also meant much to me and I learned my high notes from Joan Sutherland at her home”.
The “Bel Canto” CD is just wonderful. The music is magnificent and Fleming’s interpretations superior. Her creamy soprano and exquisite height may be widely known, but her colouraturas and expressiveness are just as fine. Her fabulous breathing technique allows her to spin out the longest arches into the finest pianissimi.
Philip Gossett is a specialist in nineteenth-century opera. He has worked with Renée Fleming many times before and especially for her he ‘reconstructed’ the ornamentation in the well-known cabalettas, including those from La Sonnambula. The result is very surprising and exciting, although one has to get used to those different notes.
Optically, Fleming is just about the most beautiful Arabella ever. Not just beautiful, but so full of herself: you can see her asking the mirror “mirror, mirror on the wall”, so to speak….
I can no longer ask Strauss, of course, but I suspect she could have been the model Arabella for him. Also her velvety way of singing as if you landed under a down duvet….
Julia Kleiter is a good Zdenka, but Morten Frank Larsen (Mandryka) is simply Danish. He looks Danish and he sings Danish. Too bad, because the direction by Götz Friedrich (Zurich 2007) is extremely exciting.
Below is a scene with Renée Fleming and Julia Kleiter:
Carsen moved the action to Nazi-occupied Paris in 1942, the time of the opera’s creation. The setting is the entire Palais Garnier, including the majestic staircase, the long corridors and the boxes in the auditorium. I assume video technology was used, but I don’t really get how it is done. So it is with bated breath that I watch the Countess, who looks admiringly from her box at her alter ego singing on stage. A truly ingenious invention for the final scene, in which she was originally supposed to sing her long final monologue in front of the mirror.
The opera’s final scene:
It is mentioned at the beginning of the opera that the text and the music are like brother and sister, and so too are the two rivals, the composer Flamand and the poet Olivier; they end up sitting fraternally in the opera’s lounging sofa, looking tenderly at their joint child: a symbiosis of words and notes. An opera.
A better Madeleine than Renée Fleming can hardly be imagined. With her endless legato, her round, creamy soprano and (not least) her scenic presence, she portrays a countess with narcissistic traits: beautiful, self-conscious, aloof and very admirable.
Her brother, portrayed by Dietrich Henschel, is a match for her, and though he does not physically resemble her, his traits betray the family ties.
It is difficult, if not impossible, to choose between the two gentlemen in love, as both Gerald Finley (Olivier) and Rainer Trost (Flamand) look very attractive in their well-groomed suits, and neither their voices nor their acting can be faulted.
Franz Hawlata is a phenomenal La Roche, and the delightful Robert Tear portrays an entertaining Monsieur Taupe.
Anne Sofie von Otter is unrecognisable as the “diva” Clairon – her entrance, with which, accompanied by a Nazi officer, she causes a lot of commotion, evokes memories of the great actresses of the 1940s.
The direction is so brilliant that you simply forget that this is an opera, and not the real world. Everyone moves and acts very naturally, and the costumes are dazzlingly beautiful. Were it not for the occasional, but very prominently portrayed, Nazis, one could imagine oneself in a utopian world of serene tranquillity.
Was this what Richard Strauss’ world looked like back then? Perhaps that was the message? I leave the conclusion to you.
Renée Fleming sings Berg, Wellesz and Zeisl. A must buy!
There is no shortage of recordings of Berg’s Lyric Suite. Both in the version for string quartet and in the version for chamber orchestra: the choices are many. Whether it was Berg’s intention we cannot really know for certain, but we assume it was: the last movement, the Largo Desolato, may also be sung.
Theodor Adorno, Berg’s pupil and confidant, considered the work to be an almost latent opera and that makes sense. Adorno was one of the few who knew about Berg’s affair with the married Hanna Fuchs, for whom he composed the work. For Berg, Fuchs was not only his lover and muse, but also his Isolde and his Lulu.
It is not the first time, by the way, that the poem by Baudelauire, the source of inspiration for the last part of the quartet, is actually sung. The Kronos Quartet and Dawn Upshaw had already recorded the version in 2003, there is also a recording by Quator Diotima with Sandrine Piau. The “Emerson”, however, offer us both versions: with and without vocals.
The decision to link Berg’s Lyric Suite to the songs of Egon Wellesz is nothing less than genius. Both composers had received their training from Schönberg, who had taught them not only the twelve-tone technique, but also to use a large dose of expressionism. Something you hear very clearly in the cycle Sonette der Elisabeth Barrett Browning.
That the songs are not performed more often is not only strange, but also a great shame. Of course, this has everything to do with the “once forbidden and then forgotten” attitude, which has also been fatal for Eric Zeisl. His short song Komm Süsser Tod makes us long for more: couldn’t there be some Zeisl added to the CD? It’s not the lack of space: at just 56 minutes, the CD is very short.
Renée Fleming’s creamy, cultured soprano and her mannerism fit the songs like a glove. The result is a beautiful cross between Gustav Klimmt and Max Beckmann. The very imaginative and expressive performance by the Emerson String Quartet adds to the overall experience. A must.
Ladies and Gentlemen, Miss Renée Fleming
The life of an opera star is no bed of roses. You are born with a voice that you then try to mould into an instrument that will always obey you. Throughout your life, you work on your technique, take language and acting lessons and you keep your body in shape because appearance is also very important, especially for a woman. And should you not only be wanting a career but also a family life, then things get tough. No wonder that at some point you start to question what is most important in your life and where your priorities really lie.
In the wonderful documentary by Tony Palmer (the maker of more wonderful documentaries, just think of the film about Maria Callas), Renée Fleming, one of the greatest opera singers of our time, talks at length about her fears and doubts. We see her during rehearsals and performances, we admire her dresses, watch home videos showing an apparently happy family life and wipe away a tear listening to her rendition of ‘Amazing Grace’ at Ground Zero.
At the presentation of a new creation from the master pastry chef: a chocolate treat called ‘La Diva Renée’, we get slightly moved. And she well deserves it.