A memorable night with Renee Fleming

Music Review

February 17, 2005|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

It would be a little too easy, not to mention a little too sticky, to sum up Renee Fleming's recital Tuesday night at the Kennedy Center by the title of a Handel aria she sang - "Endless Pleasure." But that's exactly what it was.

The soprano exuded her trademark vocal and personal radiance, even enjoying a bit of fun with the whole superstar glamour bit when she glided onstage for the second half having changed into a different, much more eye-catching gown that got its own burst of applause from the packed concert hall.

"I usually don't resort to tricks like this," she said with a laugh.

A combination of carefully considered repertoire and incisive interpretations made the evening continually rewarding. This was not a case of a diva condescending from on high to dispense a few old favorites through the vocal equivalent of sleepwalking, but an artist still keenly interested in developing, exploring, communicating.

Hartmut Holl provided every bit as much insight and sensitivity at the piano all evening.

Opening the program were items from the English baroque. Fleming brought out the flesh-and-blood elements of The Blessed Virgin's Expostulation, Purcell's almost operatic treatment of the Annunciation, and gave the descending lines of "Oh, Let Me Weep" from his The Fairy Queen great poignancy.

Handel selections (a nod to her latest, all-Handel CD) included a hushed, time-suspending account of "Convey Me to Some Peaceful Shore" that, alone, would have made the recital memorable.

In those works calling for coloratura display, there may have been a few cloudy patches, but the energy and color in Fleming's singing hit the mark.

Lieder filled the remainder of the program and proved even more satisfying. Berg's Seven Early Songs make considerable demands on voice and piano alike, intensifying poetry by Rilke and others with music of super-heated romanticism.

The soprano's creamy tone worked its magic in each of the songs, nowhere more compellingly than in Die Nachtigall, as she reached the line about roses springing up, and sent the voice soaring powerfully, sumptuously. She gave subtler moments equal care. At the close of Im Zimmer, for example, Fleming's exquisite sound ideally captured the intimate feeling of images in the verse - lovers cuddled by a fire, while autumn light slowly fades outside.

The group of Schumann songs likewise inspired glowing vocalism. Mondnacht seemed to be spun on a single, gentle breath. And the slow ascent to the rapturous final lines of Stille Tranen was masterfully, grippingly achieved.

Holl's contributions here were invaluable, especially the elfin touch he achieved in the giddy Auftrage and the impossibly delicate coda of Du bist wie eine Blume.

For encores, the soprano offered an overly extended, but irresistible, O mio babbino caro by Puccini; a contagiously ecstatic Cacilie by Strauss; and an account of Marietta's Lied by Korngold that, even with some upper-register strain, had a stunning impact.

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