Charismatic soprano Fleming knocks them out

January 18, 1999|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

Renee Fleming has a rare combination of charm and grace and the kind of charisma on stage that Monroe and Loren had in movies.

Fleming is an opera singer, which makes those qualities rarer still. Little wonder that her equally glamorous voice (fresh, full and effortless) and her fine acting skills have made her the most talked about lyric soprano of the last 10 years.

And, as Fleming demonstrated Saturday in a sold-out Kennedy Center recital in the Washington Performing Arts Society Series, she's that rarity that Arturo Toscanini once called "a soprano with brains."

Only an intelligent singer would work with an equally intelligent and gifted pianist -- Fleming's regular partner, Steven Blier -- and be able to construct so fascinating a program.

The first half explored the way three successive generations of Romantic-era composers responded to the inspiration of the figure of Gretchen in Goethe's poetry.

Thus one could hear how one of the most celebrated of all Schubert's songs, "Gretchen am Spinnrade," compared to Glinka's setting of the same poem, how Schubert's "Suleika" compared to that of Mendelssohn and how Liszt's "Kennst du das Land" compared to the setting of the same poem by Wolf, in his "Mignon Lieder."

What was at work in each of these pieces was more than a beautiful voice, it's what can be called a "song sense" -- Fleming's ability to get her heart into her throat.

Her performance of Schubert's "Gretchen" was exquisitely poignant, featuring remarkable breath control and building to a powerful climax.

What was more remarkable was the individuality of Fleming's portrait: her Gretchen was distinctively fresh and girlish, tenderly pathetic rather than merely tragic.

Fleming's firm, persuasive singing was more impressive still in the most formidable of Wolf's "Mignon" songs, "Kennst du das Land." The emotional climaxes in the three successive stanzas were calibrated with precise, but unobtrusive mastery, that nevertheless permitted them to sound utterly natural.

One was never permitted to forget that a grand operatic voice was singing these songs. How else could a single singer so thrillingly project Schubert's sinister "Szene aus Faust," with its several parts, including an Evil Spirit (usually taken by a baritone) and a chorus in the "Dies Iraes" as well as Gretchen herself. Fleming's lower register, normally so warm and rich, was (for the Evil Spirit) fierce and chilling in its color.

In the program's second half, Fleming continued from strength to strength. She brought appropriately different qualities of ecstasy to songs by Debussy and Strauss.

And she blew the audience way with performances of Gershwin. Her slides and her scat singing were sophisticated enough to suggest that Fleming, if she desired, could take aim at Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald as well as Elisabeth Schwarzkopf and Joan Sutherland.

Pub Date: 1/18/99

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