She came, she saw, she sang practically nothing. Last night’s concert at the Royal Festival Hall on London’s Southbank was ostensibly part of the so-called “International Voices” series, but Renée Fleming gave us precious little of that commodity all evening. In the first half she did not feature at all, so instead the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra under the baton of its Artistic Director and Principal Conductor Charles Dutoit, whipped up a storm with an energetic performance of Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet. That’s all well and good, but it was for the “beautiful voice” that we had all come, so already the feeling of being somewhat short-changed had come into play. Presumably the über-diva was busy trying to squeeze into her twin-tone coffee-coloured gown, or maybe she was pre-occupied with flogging bottles of her fragrance La Voce outside the London Eye, to bother overmuch with the small matter of actually singing?
The second half of the evening began with Ms Fleming singing Tatiana’s Letter Scene from Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin. Clearly she was roused more by this selection than anything that was to follow, as Fleming showed us what a stylish, and albeit idiosyncratic Tatiana she could be. Following this we had yet another instrumental offering from the RPO, this time Tchaikovsky’s Fantasia on Romeo & Juliet. Thankfully, Ms Fleming did return to sing some further selections, but what an exceptional disappointment they proved to be. Presumably the Fleming bandwagon is currently on tour to promote her recently released Verismo album. Although part of a larger artistic movement, verismo in this context, effectively refers to the operas composed by Mascagni, Leoncavallo, Puccini and others, from the last decade of the 19th century to the early part of the 20th. Those operas which have a verismo quality are characterized by a realist approach to life, occasionally with violent overtones, often pre-occupied with the working classes, but it is always in a sense a natural, rather than an artificial depiction of life. Consequently the remainder of the selections reflected this musical style, but it is, truth be told, a manner of singing to which Ms Fleming is entirely unsuited.
Fleming possesses one of the most opulently beautiful sopranos in the world, in fact it probably is the most beautiful voice in the world. What she does not possess, is a honking spinto that can alternately glide and caress an aria and then suddenly rip through the orchestra with fierce abandon. Hers is a lyric soprano through and through, which possesses great flexibility and ease in the upper third of the voice. It is however, deficient at the bottom, whereas a spinto would have recourse to that majestic chest register. It also lacks the necessary volume to surmount the orchestra during the not infrequent blasts of sound composed by Giordano, Leoncavallo, Mascagni and their ilk. So why verismo? I am unaware of Ms Fleming having any plans to star in, or revive a verismo opera (very wise under the circumstances), so can only deduce that it is a money- spinning marketing ploy, with no other substance to the actual idea than merely to sell CDs.
The first verismo selections were from Leoncavallo’s rarely performed and rather dreary La boheme. Based on Scenes de la vie de boheme by Henri Murger, the same source text as used in Puccini’s more famous account, we received just two miniscule offerings from this opera, about which I suppose I ought to be pleased. The first was “Musetta svaria sulla bocca viva” sung by Mimi. Instantly forgettable, the vapid music was imbued with Ms Fleming’s gorgeously opulent tones, wreathed in an almost entirely incomprehensible wordless melisma. Occasionally an odd word would break free and declare itself intelligible, but on the whole she could have been singing practically anything. More worrying, was how the voice seemed to be having problems settling into the aria, as if her approach was slightly uncertain. Perhaps this was because the aria was rather low lying for Ms Fleming’s voice. Even more bizarrely, this selection was paired with Musetta’s “Mimi Pinson la biondinetta”, which is written for a mezzo-soprano. This proved to be far too low for the soprano, but its waltz-like structure allowed Ms Fleming to communicate real joy in the voice, and a beautiful, lilting approach was applied throughout. As with Mimi’s aria, it was mercifully short.
Things marginally improved with “Nel suo amore” from Giordano’s Siberia (the libretto for this opera was by the same man who provided the libretto for Puccini’s La boheme, Luigi Illica). “Nel suo amore” is sung by the heroine of the opera Stephana, a role created by Rosina Storchio. Bearing in mind that Storchio also sang the title roles in the world premieres of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly, and Mascagni’s Zazà, you can deduce that such music is intended to be sung by a much fuller sounding soprano, than a pure lyric. If this aria had been taken at an even slower pace, as in Ester Mazzoleni’s famous recording, you could be forgiven for thinking that some of the passages are reminiscent in style and structure to Bishop’s “Home, sweet home”, but it is a poignant declaration of love in an opera which is overwhelmingly bleak. Fleming sang it with touching simplicity, only occasionally allowing the voice to arc with emotion. The words however, were almost entirely incomprehensible, a theme which seemed to characterize the entire evening.
Luckily, we did at last come to a great example of verismo in the form of Puccini’s “Sola, perduta abbandonata” from Manon Lescaut. Beloved of all spintos and adventurous lyrics, this aria is five minutes of veristic perfection. One must ask at this juncture if beauty of voice is a pre-requisite when singing verismo? I would argue yes, but it is considerably less important than when singing bel canto. What you need is a gutsy approach, plenty of stamina, fire power where it counts and the ability to charge the performance with emotion. Just listen to Diana Soviero singing this aria and many more on her wonderful Verismo album, and you get a flavour of the sort of voice which is required. Even better, turn to Tebaldi, Caballé and even Freni to hear how it ought to be done. Fleming certainly managed to convince us that Manon was indeed in her death throes, but it was disconcerting to hear her voice being all but covered during the heavier orchestration. There is also missing that necessary Italianate expression in the voice, morbidezza even (which Gheorghiu manages today very well), which all comes together to suggest a natural fit between artist and music. No doubt many of these obstacles are overcome on the CD – the miracles of recording studios.
All of the above probably came to around twenty three minutes of singing or thereabouts, so expectations of two or three encores were deservedly high. As it was, we received just one solitary consolatory aria, and that was the dreaded “O mio babbino caro”, which I freely admit was sung beautifully in a small-scale manner. If I had just walked into a Katherine Jenkins concert I might not have been so surprised at such a choice, but as it was, I was flabbergasted that a more pertinent selection could not have been made. Perhaps something like “Stridono lassù” from Leoncavallo’s I pagliacci would have been a more appropriate choice, as the higher tessitura would have suited her voice perfectly. There is a wealth of exciting material in this repertory, so why choose such a mundane and perfunctory aria to close your concert with?
Despite everything that has been written, I am a great admirer of Fleming’s voice, and in the right repertory consider her to be all but peerless (just listen to her magnificent Thais should you need convincing). However, this concert was lamentable for two reasons, one for relegating herself to the role of guest artist appearing in an evening with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, and secondly, for singing music that is on the whole, largely unsuited to her voice. She is one of the few great singers of today, but this concert is best forgotten.