I couldn’t offhand quantify how many recitals Renée Fleming has given in London since her debut here 23 years ago: it must run easily into double figures. Yet this, without doubt, was the finest of them all, both in terms of the programming and, more surprisingly at this near quarter-century remove, vocal execution. Of course, Fleming has always had her rabid fans (no less than her equally – if not more so – rabid detractors), but this is the first time I have ever witnessed her receive a standing ovation. Now, most “standing ovations” these days are what might more accurately be described as “leaving ovations”, the audience only on its collective feet not as an act of homage but simply as part of its shuffling progress to the exits. But this afternoon’s recital was actually the object of that absolute rarity, a genuine and virtually unanimous standing ovation, the result of a completely spontaneous display of esteem and affection. And it was richly merited. I can’t readily recall ever having heard the diva in quite such fabulous voice – well, this is almost a given: she has one of the greatest techniques of this or any other era – as well as now performing with a new-found effortlessness of communication, a sort of wonderfully relaxed, easy sense of rapport where once there was diffidence and inhibition. There were times, not so many years ago, when Fleming’s platform manner was rather arch and stilted, which, if it didn’t affect the quality of the singing, nevertheless rather impeded its full enjoyment. Nowadays, you get the impression that the roof could fall in and the piano collapse, and still the diva would sing on, unruffled, with an imperturbable air of décontraction, and in all likelihood a suave shrug of the shoulders, just to let us know she’d noticed, but wasn’t actually bothered. This is a wonderful skill to have developed, at once both endearing and disarming. We are now privy to the soprano quite visibly enjoying herself, no longer ill-at-ease but utterly in her element. It’s something oddly moving to witness, and at a personal level, exceptionally satisfying. It should happen to everybody.
One minor caveat. I do rather feel that the deeply felt musical response she genuinely manifests during any given song is unnecessarily larded over with “emoting” during the sometimes lengthy piano postludes. It’s almost as if she doesn’t quite believe she’s given enough indication of her involvement with her singing alone – alone! – and somehow needs to be seen by the audience to be carried away in aesthetic reverie. It looks just a teeny-weeny bit fake, appliqué when all else is authentic, and I wish she could cultivate a manner that just went with the non-vocal musical passages without visual editorialising. Other than that, this is as good as it gets, and pretty much joy unconfined. The programme, most artfully chosen and ordered, was a narrow-focus conspectus of the Viennese lied from the later 1880s to the early 1930s. Ms. Fleming – now Mrs. Jessel – provided a typically intelligent and interesting programme foreword which set out the unusual musical parameters this recital was crafted to reflect. As a summation of the intent behind it, I can do no better than quote from it. “In my current programme I concentrate on a comparatively short period. There are only 45 years between the Goethe songs by Hugo Wolf and Erich Korngold’s Das Eilende Bächlein. But how very much happened in those few years between 1888 and 1933, between the Golden Age of the German and Austro-Hungarian monarchies and the beginning of the Third Reich – not only in world history, but also in the field of culture. Fin de siècle, Art Nouveau and Expressionism, psychoanalysis and the women’s movement: the invention of the gramophone record, film, broadcasting; the boom of operetta and the cabaret; the Bauhaus and New music movements.”
She then goes on to draw a dense picture of the historical links that bound the five composers represented on the programme together: Wolf, Mahler, Schoenberg, Zemlinsky and Korngold. Coupled with Richard Wigmore’s exemplary notes on the individual songs and their composers, this recital was as fine an introductory overview of the birth of modernism as could be devised, though there was one rather yawning, elephant-in-the-room type absentee in all this – Richard Strauss – that had me puzzled, until this too was both humorously acknowledged and explained away in the first of the encores, Zueignung (“And now, the composer who of course brought me to all this in the first place”). The first three of the five Wolf settings of Goethe poems with which the soprano opened the recital were all light, larky, floral/pastoral pieces, finely done, but the fourth, Die Bekehrte, is a slow, steamy number in which she mined an unexpectedly deep vein of intense feeling, filling her normally bright and forward tone with a heavy, almost sorrowful ache in the sound. This was carried over into Anakreons Grab, sung with the most exquisitely beautiful tone and length of breath imaginable (though the overly-thesped postlude slightly spoiled the effect for me). I might add that the playing of the accompanist, Maciej Pikulski, was hereabouts of an almost Debussyian introspection that possibly encouraged the diva’s approach.
This was continued into Mahler’s five Rückert-Lieder, where the singing and interpretation were to all intents and purposes perfect, except for the nagging sense that the songs don’t actually respond all that well to being sung by a soprano, as opposed to the more usual mezzo or baritone, where the darker timbres more naturally feed into the world-weary, heart-heavy atmosphere they breathe. Even so, Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen was a glorious piece of singing, flawlessly sustained, and with beautifully enunciated German (though the preceding Blicke mir nicht in die Lieder, a much lighter, faster song arguably found Fleming less able both to articulate text and focus the tone at such a tempo. Clearly, hers is a voice that needs room to expand, and time to manoeuvre within it).
After the interval, Renée Fleming returned no longer dressed in the lovely midnight blue dress and black bolero jacket she had worn in the first half, instead now immured in one of those pieces of semi-architectural couture, with ruches and wings sprouting all over the shop and an enormous wrap in matching champagne colour that struck me as way OTT until she greeted the thunderous applause by saying “I do realise that this is a bit much, but it’s so you get to make the Klimt connection” (Vivienne Westwood beamed at this a few seats away, so I suppose we know who the frockist was). First, the soprano sang two Schoenberg songs, the 1899 Erwartung (no connection with the 1909 one-act monodrama) and one I’ve never heard before, Jane Grey, a moody evocation of the execution of our nine-day queen in 1553, which struck me as superb both as a piece and as a performance, a seven minute opera in miniature, realised with remarkable imaginative insight and power.
Nor was I remotely familiar with Zemlinsky’s Five Songs to Texts by Richard Dehmel which followed – have they ever even been published? – which obliquely tell a sort of progressive narrative of a doomed affair (in 1907, the year of their composition, Zemlinsky’s sister Mathilde, married to Schoenberg, was having a torrid and very public fling with a painter who subsequently killed himself when she returned to her husband). The third song, Letzte Bitte, was an object-lesson in immaculately sustained legato singing, long-limbed and sensuous in itself, and so rapt in the intensity of its withdrawn expression that the silence following was, alas, punctuated by a fusillade of bronchitic honking as the audience finally drew breath. The diva almost flinched cartoonishly – as well she might – but deflected the implied (and well-merited) criticism by coughing herself, as she had once or twice already between numbers, and saying “I totally sympathise!”. But the sheer weight of resplendent tone she unleashed in the next song, Stromüber, belied any thought of indisposition, and had me wondering at its stupendous, hall-filling climax whether Fleming should really have had at least one crack in her career at the shallower Wagnerian heavies, like Senta and Elisabeth.
She ended the printed programme with five songs by Korngold, prefacing them with a short speech telling us about some of the links between the composers and the whole Freudian, Viennese set-up, and how she had met with the surviving heirs of both Schoenberg and Korngold’s families, learning how, ensconced in California after fleeing the Nazis, both had felt utterly alien. The third song – Was du mir bist? written in 1929 – was such a blazing, magnificently sung outpouring of high Straussian schwung that the audience, which had hitherto observed the sober Wigmore style of only clapping groups, rather than individual, songs, spontaneously erupted as if it was a curtain call at the end of Götterdämmerung. Fleming looked quite astonished at first, then pleased as punch (whereof why not?). The last scheduled song was in fact an aria, Frag mich oft, from Korngold’s Walzer aus Wien, a pastiche of Johann Strauss operettas, that was so sumptuous and slyly suggestive in its delivery that even I will manage to overcome my lifelong aversion to Léhar and turn out for The Merry Widow which I believe is Fleming’s farewell to the ROH in two or so years’ time.
After the first, Strauss, encore (at last!), she continued with what she told us was going to be the sorbet after so much Sachertorte, Délibes’ Les filles de Cadix, a cod-Spanish bolero frolic written in 1874 which Bizet almost certainly knew because it sounds exactly like the Danse bohémienne (“Les tringles des sistres tintaient”) that opens Carmen Act II. Fleming had told us that this was new repertory for her (and the only item all night not in German) so it was perhaps not altogether surprising that, at Pikulski’s bustling tempo, the second verse came unstuck and the diva was reduced to mock spluttering and a brief outburst of arm-boogying signifying that she was lost. Amidst gales of laughter, she started the verse again, and this time nailed it, to universal delight. And to finish, she sang for us the fattest, richest slice of pure Korngold, Glück, das mir verblieb (aka Mariettas Lied) from Die Tote Stadt. I’ve heard her sing it before in concert with full orchestra: but not with the absolutely staggering lustrousness she achieved here, a piece of perfect singing if ever I’ve heard it (in starkest contrast to the ghastly, short-breathed, shriekfest served up by Nadja Michael who sort of half-sang the role at the ROH in a staging I’d love to see again, but with a proper cast). The audience went completely berserk, and rose to its feet en masse, as well it might. Fleming will be 54 in February – Lord, whatever happened to gallantry? – but to my ears this is still the voice I first heard nigh-on a quarter-century ago, with undiminished length of breath and evenness of emission, flawlessly integrated registers, and even, wonder of wonders, a real, perfectly executed trill (on insolently lengthy display in the Délibes piece). She is a wonder of not just her own, but this, age, and it’s showing no sign whatsoever of withering her. On this form, she’s good for as long as she wants to carry on. She’s certainly never been better. Long may she continue to flourish.
Photographs © Andrew Eccles