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Diva Fleming’s big voice a divine pleasure

Renée Fleming and Jean-Yves ThibaudetApril 5 2001

The Globe and Mail

by Ben D’Andrea

A soprano of Renee Fleming’s pre-eminence can give a recital without a single one of opera’s hit arias and still mesmerize her audience with vocal thrills. None of the 18 songs the American singer chose for her Vancouver debut on Thursday night so much as hinted at grandiose operatic outpourings. Instead, Fleming offered a program of art songs – imbued with quicksilver passions and moonlight – wonderfully suited to displaying the evocative breadth of her voice.

Fleming began with six songs by Gabriel Faure, and her opening choice was perfect: the capering Mandoline, so like an invitation to the refined pleasures of the moonlit dance it describes.

Considered by many as foremost among French composers of melodies, Faure is almost required in a program of art songs. But there was nothing merely dutiful about Fleming’s renditions. She brought freshness and elegance to  Mandoline and maintained a beautifully flexible vocal line throughout all of Faure’s freewheeling melodies.

The obvious choice for the German-language portion of a program centred around the songs of the late 19th- and early 20th-centuries would be the Austrian Hugo Wolf. But, as Fleming’s past recitals of both contemporary and neglected songs have shown, she isn’t always satisfied with the obvious selections. She chose four songs by a lesser-known compatriot of Wolfs, Joseph Marx. She sang these miniatures as if they were rare gems, capturing their longing as well as playfulness with her glowing tone.

In the second half, Fleming returned to French with Debussy’s three Chansons de Bilitis, which the composer himself described as being both “tender and cruel in the fact of being impassioned.” In other words, these songs require contrasting vocal colours. Fleming sang them with precisely chosen dramatic subtleties- by turns rapturous, mournful and haunting.

The journey through art song that began with the elegant reticence of Faure ended with some openly romantic songs of Rachmaninoff, for which Fleming set free the full resonant power of her voice. There were also moments when she floated hushed phrases as softly as butterflies in her luminous high range. The effect was ravishing. Only for the last in this set of songs did the dramatic tension weaken a little as Fleming consulted the printed lyrics while she sang.

Fleming’s accompanist was the excellent French pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet, his graceful playing seldom too weighty for the vocal line.

Thibaudet also played solo pieces by Chopin and Debussy in between the sets of songs, which afforded opportunities for the kind of virtuosic display not usually permitted to the accompanist. The pieces Thibaudet chose suited the predominantly nocturnal colouring of Fleming’s songs, and his exquisite interpretations provided more than mere interludes to the singing. He easily met the technical demands of the Chopin etude and beautifully shaped the phrases for the Chopin nocturnes and the two pieces by Debussy, including the famous Clair de lune.

Fleming looked glamorous in a black gown that, after the intermission, acquired black and tangerine prima-donna frills around one arm and along the hemline. But there was nothing of the imperious diva in her manner. She proved herself a relaxed performer, sometimes leaning against the piano during extended keyboard passages, seemingly lost in the music. She was enjoying herself.

She obviously wanted everyone to have a good time. After the audience clamoured to hear more of her big, gorgeous voice, Fleming gave four encores – by Dvorak, Strauss and, as a lively send-off, Duke Ellington’s It Don’t Mean a Thing If It Ain’t Got that Swing.


Sat Apr 7, 2001