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The Flaws That Refresh: A Risk-Taking Renee Fleming

By Philip Kennicott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 17, 2005; Page C09

Perfection always makes us a little suspicious. The politician with the perfect suit, the Bill Frist hair, the dimpled tie, the fluorescent smile, who greets everyone in the room, drawing names, as if by magic, out of the depths of the inner Rolodex -- don't trust him.

Soprano Renee Fleming, who sang a generous and sometimes bumpy recital at the Kennedy Center on Tuesday evening, used to be dogged by charges of hollow perfection. In years past, a Fleming recital was an awe-inspiring and sometimes chilly thing, a display of couture and beauty, a perfect balance of magisterial radiance and coy self-deprecation. Often, like a perfectly chilled aspic straight from the fridge, the music was an exact and somewhat less vital replica of what the listener already knew from her recordings. You thought, by God, how does she do it? But you didn't necessarily go home soul-struck or spirit-moved.

Fleming's recital at the Kennedy Center drew three encores. (Andrew Eccles -- Viking/decca Via AP)

She's grown in recent years, yet on Tuesday, the surprise was imperfection, some admirable risks and a few authentic flaws. Her program, she said from the stage, was a new one, though arias by Handel were familiar from a recent recording, and songs by Schumann are standard fare for any singer.

She began with music of Henry Purcell, accompanied by Hartmut Holl on the piano. Most of these songs will never work with a modern piano. The vocal lines crave both the tensile undergirding of a bowed instrument and the bursts of harmonic color of a plucked one. Holl played with a whisper tone, leaving Fleming both exposed and unable to make sense of the way Purcell's lines slide and droop and caress the underpinnings of the bass line. Her ornamentation sounded well-considered but not fully felt.

Fleming didn't make narrative sense of Purcell's seven-minute cantata known as the "Blessed Virgin's Expostulation." It is an episodic thing that requires a voice both lighter and more flexible than Fleming's, and a firm command of compressed storytelling. Her cries of "Gabriel, Gabriel," importuning the agent of God for relief, were harrowing. And yet they were out of proportion to the rest of the music. In faster passage work, here, and in other shorter Purcell songs, one wanted a lighter voice, a more bell-like tone, something more like the voice of Sylvia McNair or Emma Kirkby.

With music by Handel, Fleming was on familiar ground. She bounced back and forth when Holl launched into the jaunty introduction to "Oh Had I Jubal's Lyre," flashing a knowing smile to the audience. Fleming excels at two types of songs: the wry, witty, entertaining sort, and the hushed, ecstatic, gravity-defying sort. In the former, she entertains, and shows to good effect the clarity of the voice; in the latter, she transports, and indulges (too much?) a taste for letting each tone blossom, swell and darken.

In the opening sighs of "O Sleep, Why Dost Thou Leave Me?" she sang exactly as she sings on her recording, a gesture so striking it's uncanny to hear it reproduced without any variation. Perhaps there's no other way for her to do it. We have all become, in relation to the memory of recorded sound, as children are to their bedtime stories: We brook no deviation and Fleming, wise mother of song, knows what her babes want.

Underneath all the roles they must assume and all the emotions they must fabricate, every singer has a basic, core personality. For Fleming, that role is essentially the American Abroad. She is a Henry James American, a good-natured gal in love with love, enraptured by rapture, intrigued by intrigue -- and yet fully cognizant that the dark emotions of European opera and European song are really just a game. Fleming is a smart tourist of song, a sensible risk-taker of the "I'll try anything once" variety, but someone who always finds her way home.

Listening to her sing early songs of Alban Berg in the second half of the program felt a bit like hearing a solid citizen of Baltimore or Boston recount the dark night of the soul he had for a couple of weeks while on vacation in Germany. The soaring arch of "Die Nachtigall" was lovely; the shading of "Schilflied" evoked exactly the right mood of sex and solitude. She plays with these songs with great dexterity, using her astonishing breath control to support their softest intimations and delicacies. They were lovely, and miniature, and neatly contained, but more like the memory rather than the real presence of emotion.

Fleming sang the first half of the program in a black dress with lots of shiny, fringy bits. For the second half she appeared in a brilliant white dress with a train, and lots of shiny, fringy bits. She made a joke about it, deflating the ostentation of a costume change into personal whimsy. But by the end of her recital, a set of Schumann songs, it was clear that this dress-up was a canny bit of artistry.

Schumann's "Stille Tranen," last on the program, is just about a perfect song for her, a song that seems to grow immanently out of the air itself, rising, floating, soaring, sending the voice ever higher and demanding ever more volume. She finished the song leaning against the piano, the head slightly back, an enigmatic half-smile on her face and, with the funereal black gown of the first half a distant memory, she stood there exactly like . . . a picture of a transfigured singer by Whistler or Sargent. This odd thing, known as a recital, is all a dream. It's harmless. Or to borrow the last lines of Schumann's song, "and in the morning you assume, their hearts are always light."

The audience's collective heart was light. A standing ovation brought forth three encores, arias by Puccini and Korngold and a song by Richard Strauss. The Strauss was magnificent, the Korngold heartbreaking, the Puccini pure charm. Perhaps because they stood outside the neat package all tied with a bow of the recital itself, the encores made the strongest impact of the evening. It was, in any case, 10 p.m., and time for a sensible American to be in bed.

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