There is no singer with a résumé more extensive and, well, interesting, than the beloved American soprano (whose birthday is on Valentine’s Day) dubbed in her PR as “the people’s diva.” Renee Fleming appeared, for the sixth time, on Boston Celebrity Series on Sunday, resplendent in a billowing blue dress and shawl, looking radiant, poised, and joyful at Symphony Hall. Indeed, she is the poster girl for this year’s Celebrity Series. Fleming has worked very hard, she admitted recently in an interview in Opera News, to craft her career as carefully as her meticulous musical phrasing. She has thought long and hard about each career move and each role she has sung and shunned.
Fleming has become Music’s Julia Roberts—a likable, bankable, tractable diva without a complex—possessing a fabulous smile which lights up a room—movie-star hair. It’s hard not to like Renée Fleming. Despite her fabulous gowns, her beauty, her near-overexposure as a host for Live from the Met, and the fact that a dessert, an iris, and a fragrance, “La Voce,” has been designed for her, she seems like the girl next door when she starts to talk. She’s got those early Julia Robert’s qualities of fun, vulnerability, and humanity.
All of this helps when she gives a recital with piano. But I would not want to be her female pianist. Yesterday’s was Olga Kern, who has won a lot of competitions and was the first woman in more than 30 years to win the Gold Medal at the Van Cliburn Competition. She made a good impression, especially when she had little solos ending songs. She was allotted one piano solo, a transcription of his song “Lilacs,” and she told a story about how at every concert, the composer would receive lilacs from an unknown person, who finally became good friends with him. Though Kern really shone, it was Fleming’s show, even sartorially.
Their program opened with Robert Schumann’s famous Frauenliebe und -Leben, Opus 42. Fleming chatted to us before singing “this tender masterpiece of a song cycle,” explaining how, once in vogue, this intense collection of eight songs about a woman’s enduring love of a man had been “put away for the duration of my career.” Everyone in those times, she explained, “was living dire lives.” Well, maybe not everyone. Fleming mostly sang these in an intimate range as if she were entering these poems into her diary.
Schumann wrote this cycle in 1840, his so-called “year of song,” during which he also wrote Liederkreis, Op. 24 and Dichterliebe, Opus 39. Set to a cycle of poems by Adelbert von Chamisso, Frauenliebe und –Leben was written in 1830. The poems tell of a woman’s love for one man throughout the cycle of her life, from their first meeting when she was deeply smitten (in song two, “He, the most magnificent of all”) through something worshipful (“I will bless that elevated one a thousand times over”), to her widowhood. Declarations of wanting to serve him, live for him, and finding herself transfigured in his radiance, are a stretch for women of today, but the last song tells in more timeless sentiments of “thou hard, merciless man, the sleep of death… The world is void. I have lived and lived, I am no longer living”. Fleming and Kern matched moods perfectly in an intimate performance with the piano at short stick, though this was not a good decision for such a large hall. Jordan Hall would have been far preferable, though half of us could not have been admitted.
A long intermission ensued. “You get two divas and four costumes,” Fleming explained, “and you get at least one wardrobe malfunction.” The problem was with her dazzling gold strapless gown (with a beautiful gold taffeta and tulle shawl). “There’s an expert backstage that literally sewed me into this dress!” The piano was more open now, and both the tone of the recital and its sound shifted from introverted to far more outgoing during these, which, Fleming stated, take us, through “flying and dreaming, to a different place.” Fleming projected exquisitely, and Kern (in a purplish one-shoulder gown) had fine solo turns. The collaboration was at its best in these.
A bouquet of five Strauss songs completed the (printed) program. Fleming has repeatedly recognized how Strauss fits her voice, and has wisely championed his music. She was in gorgeous form throughout these five mostly slow works, which had snippets of piano solos and postludes, all played beautifully. “Who needs an orchestra, right?” Fleming marveled.
The audience was treated to three of Fleming’s most popular encores: Strauss’s “Cecilia,” Gershwin’s “Summertime” and “I Could Have Danced All Night,” which she did as an encore at Tanglewood last summer. She asked if there were singers in the house, and implored them to sing the second verse (she took the high notes). Unsurprisingly, the audience went wild, after a whole recital of behaving in a contained fashion, befitting the repertoire.
Fleming joked that she should do a program of just requests, and I, for one, would love that, especially if it included her other popular encore, “Over the Rainbow.”
I’m sorry to conclude by calling out the Celebrity Series for omitting program notes. We can sometimes do without essays, but is it too much to ask for compositional dates along with poets’ and translators’ names?