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Renee Fleming soars in recital at the Lyric Opera House

Renee Fleming soars in recital at the Lyric Opera House

On one level, Renée Fleming’s eloquent recital at the Lyric Opera House Thursday night was just that — a solo performance by a pulchritudinous and ever-engaging soprano, one of the biggest vocal stars on the world stage today. But the event also carried a certain symbolic weight.

Arriving patrons were met at the front door by the familiar greeters in red sashes who used to welcome patrons of the now buried Baltimore Opera Company. In the lobby, a concession stand featured some of the opera-themed items that used to be on sale when that company was in business. Many of the people pouring into the theater were the same ones who used to be seen on opera nights back then.

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And, just in case anyone missed the point, there was talk from the stage and in the program book about bringing "grand opera" back to the Lyric, which lost a longtime tenant when Baltimore Opera tanked least season. It remains to be seen if anything approaching that lamented company will ever emerge inside the historic house, but it's encouraging to see all the determination.

The Lyric certainly couldn't find a more appealing artist to help kindle the flame than Fleming, whose previous appearance there two years ago happened to be for a Baltimore Opera fundraiser.

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The sizable crowd she drew Thursday got to hear her reprise one of the selections from that 2007 concert, the "Willow Song" and "Ave Maria" sung by the doomed Desdemona in the final act of Verdi's "Otello." "Let's see if we can do this without the door alarm," the soprano joked, referring to

the unfortunate incident that caused her to stop partway through the music on that earlier occasion.

This time, nothing interrupted Fleming as she delivered long scene in trademark fashion, not only lavishing her luscious tone on the melodic lines, but conveying all of the character's inner turmoil with mesmerizing expressive power. Her delivery of the final, gently rising line was meltingly beautiful.

Here and there during the recital, the singer encountered a raspy patch when moving into the upper reaches, and there was a little articulation fuzziness at the start of the evening in an aria from Rossini's "Armida" (she stars in a new production of the work at the Met this spring). But these were minor matters in light of all the familiar Fleming magic that filled the space.

Given the predominance of opera excerpts on the program, it was hard not to miss the presence of an orchestra, but pianist Gerald Martin Moore proved a masterful substitute. He produced lots of colors at the keyboard to complement the soprano's appropriately shimmering account of the "Jewel Song" from Gounod's "Faust" and provided abundant nuance in the sampling of arias from Fleming's latest CD, devoted to the verismo age of Italian opera, with its focus on realism (of emotion, if not necessarily plot).

Fleming's choices for the recital included a touch of the familiar, Mimi's Act 3 aria from Puccini's "La Boheme," and four of the rarities that make the CD so fascinating and valuable — selections from Leoncavallo's long-overshadowed version of "La Boheme," Zandonai's "Conchita" ("Carmen on steroids" is how Fleming described the title character), and Giordano's "Siberia." The latter generated a particularly treasurable performance of an first-rate, deeply poetic aria, "Nel suo amore rianimata," which the soprano capped with a sublime, long-held note.

The non-operatic pieces on the program yielded memorable results as well, for these were songs by Strauss, a composer who always brings out the best in Fleming. She caught the lightness and innocence of "Standchen," phrased "Freundliche Vision" and "Winterweihe" with extraordinary warmth, and poured on the tonal ecstasy for "Zueignung." Moore did particularly shining work in the Strauss songs as well.

Another Strauss gem was served up during the encores — an ecstatic "Cacilie." Fleming also offered a little more Puccini in the form of a sublimely shaped "O mio babbino caro" and, switching to her distinctive pop music side, closed the evening with a poignant performance of a Blossom Dearie song, "Touch the Hand of Love." The sound of Fleming's smoky low notes and deeply considered phrasing of that melancholy number lingered in my ears all the way home. (I've attached a video clip of Fleming singing "Touch the Hand of Love" with Yo-Yo Ma and friends.)

BALTIMORE SUN FILE PHOTO

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