With an uncommonly radiant voice and the kind of glamour that glossy magazines love, Renee Fleming has been a certified opera star for more than a decade. But Baltimore didn't get an opportunity to bathe in her glow until Tuesday night, when the soprano made an overdue debut before a large, demonstrative and miraculously cough-free audience at the Meyerhoff Symphony Hall.
Presented and backed by the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, with Houston Grand Opera music director Patrick Summers conducting, Fleming offered a sampling from her newest CD, Sacred Songs, and a generous helping of Christmas favorites.
The innate creaminess of the singer's tone fits seasonal music like a cashmere-lined glove (or the long, velvety stole that completed her deep purple, neo-Victorian gown, designed, as a program note informed the curious, by Gianfranco Ferre).
She caressed such carols as "What Child Is This?" and "Silent Night" with enough warmth to melt snow, and shaped the gently lilting lines of "Gesu Bambino" in shimmering, long-breathed phrases. The sincerity of these ageless tunes and sentiments sounded remarkably fresh.
Fleming started off with a work by a composer much associated with her stardom - Mozart. Although some of the coloratura in the opera-worthy Laudamus te from his Mass in C minor was not quite crystalline, some of the high notes not quite free or effortless (this was occasionally the case later in the evening, too), the performance had a telling mix of elegance and exuberance.
An arrangement of Bach's "Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring" proved less interesting, as did a buoyant "Rejoice greatly" from Handel's Messiah. But Dank sei dir, Herr, a stately aria once attributed to Handel, inspired deeply expressive vocalism, which continued to pour out in a somewhat fussy arrangement of Schubert's Ave Maria.
The arranger of that Schubert item, Chris Hazell, who contributed a good deal to Fleming's Sacred Songs recording, demonstrated his more inspired side in the delicate instrumentation and wonderfully moody, unexpected chords that helped make "Silent Night" so effective.
Famed fiddler Mark O'Connor's almost melancholy arrangement of "Away in a Manger," with the subtlest of twangy slides in the strings, likewise contributed much to the magic that the soprano achieved. Concertmaster Jonathan Carney handled the solo violin lines in that item stylishly.
Yet another arranger, Mac Wilberg, provided a Vaughan Williams-like lushness and darkly beautiful harmonies for "What Child Is This?" and gave "Deck the Halls" a charming orchestral coating (Fleming's otherwise clear diction deserted her here).
"Poor Mary," a lovely carol Fleming learned from her mother, inspired another gleaming performance. For the grand hymn Panis Angelicus and even grander aria "O Holy Night," the soprano pulled out operatic stops that had been mostly downplayed during the evening, and the results were suitably stirring.
Throughout, Summers was a fluent partner and drew polished playing from the BSO.
On its own, the orchestra was featured in some imaginatively chosen selections, including two beautifully shaped excerpts from Humperdinck's Hansel and Gretel and, out of left field, a tuneful, colorfully orchestrated suite from Erich Wolfgang Korngold's The Snowman, a pantomime he wrote at the ripe age of 11.
Fleming dedicated her first two encores to men and women in the armed services - "I'll Be Home for Christmas," delivered with the assurance and taste of a seasoned ballad singer, and a mesmerizing, a cappella "Amazing Grace."
At one point, before getting the audience to chime in on "Joy to the World," the soprano asked the audience, "Can I come back next week?"