With her creamy, enveloping tone, her deeply communicative phrasing and her glamorous star quality, Renee Fleming warmed the Lyric Opera House on Saturday night.
The soprano's gala concert for the Baltimore Opera Company, which drew a packed house, offered a generous sampling of repertoire that showed off her versatility and musicianship. The occasion also gave Fleming an unexpected opportunity to demonstrate grace under fire.
"You'll remember this," the singer said with a big smile, after having to interrupt her arresting performance of the Ave Maria from Verdi's Otello when an alarm bell erupted backstage.
Fleming will surely remember it, too. I just hope she doesn't hold it against us.
That wasn't the only awful distraction. There was the guy who kept noisily exiting and entering a side door, sending bolts of distracting light into the theater (an usher finally arrived, only to go in and out of the door herself). And there was the couple in the balcony who kept turning on a flashlight to read the program.
But nothing, it seemed, could challenge Fleming's disarming lack of diva-tude.
When that infernal bell started clanging, she calmly stopped singing -- "Sorry, I can't compete," she said -- and even joked about it being "worse than a cell phone." She patiently waited for something to done about the intrusion, a process that seemed to take forever. Silence restored, she calmly indicated to conductor Ya-Hui Wang where to resume the performance.
And, instantly, Fleming was right back in character, once again the sad, apprehensive Desdemona, praying for comfort as she awaited her unaccountably angry husband. The voice climbed the last melodic ascent of the aria with extraordinary technical control and exquisite interpretive power.
The singing was just as compelling earlier in this sizable excerpt from the last act of Otello, as Fleming delivered the haunting Willow Song that precedes the Ave Maria.
Two of Puccini's greatest hits followed the Verdi scene. O mio babbino caro wasn't quite as enchanting as it was when Fleming sang it with the National Symphony Orchestra in September, but it still hit the spot. Vissi d'arte was spun out beautifully.
Back in the first half of the program, the soprano left her mark on excerpts from two Czech operas. She summoned passion and brilliance for an aria from Smetana's Dalibor, one of the gems on her Homage: The Age of the Diva CD nominated for two Grammys last week.
And she floated one of her longtime signature items, Song to the Moon from Dvorak's Rusalka, to melting effect. (She later got a laugh pointing out that her form-fitting, sea-green gown made her look like the Little Mermaid -- just the thing for this aria about a water sprite.)
In a group of Handel arias, Fleming avoided the bloodless style adopted by some proponents of baroque music, putting all sorts of color and even jazzy swoops into phrases. But there was only seamless, ravishing beauty in her gentle account of O Sleep, Why Dost Thou Leave Me from Semele -- as inspired and hypnotic a performance as I've ever heard her give.
The concert also showcased Fleming's unusual versatility. She's one of few opera singers able to cross over musical styles persuasively. She shaped a medley of two folk songs, "The Water is Wide" and "Oh Shenandoah," to telling effect, exploiting her rich low register. And she took a simple, eloquent approach to John Kander's nicely understated treatment of "A Letter from Sullivan Ballou" -- a Civil War soldier's haunting farewell to his wife.
Ya-Hui Wang, who studied at Peabody Institute and enjoys a global career, did her best to keep the Baltimore Opera Orchestra on Fleming's wavelength. The playing achieved admirable cohesion and sheen in spots, both when accompanying the singer and offering on its own such favorites as Borodin's Polovtsian Dances and Bernstein's Candide Overture. But there were many untidy moments as well, and the overall sound was rather tinny.
The soprano moved to pop music for her encores, starting with a leisurely, liberally ornamented "Over the Rainbow." Fleming then called for audience participation in "I Could Have Danced All Night," not the most obvious candidate for a sing-along, and she certainly got it.
That wasn't quite the final high I was hoping for, but I could have listened to Fleming all night.