Dark Victory for Fleming and the NSO

By Joan Reinthaler
Special to The Washington Post
Saturday, August 5, 2006

"Sopranos don't like being upstaged by anything," Renee Fleming told the adoring crowd at Wolf Trap on Thursday, but that had happened even before the soprano made her appearance on the stage. The National Symphony, under estimable Associate Conductor Emil de Cou, had just finished a vivid reading of Dukas's "The Sorcerer's Apprentice," accompanied by a increasingly insistent obbligato of crickets, thunder and lightning, when the wind and rain came and all the lights went out. De Cou is the man you want onstage at a time like this. When his conducting days are over, he has a great career waiting for him as a stand-up comic: He entertained everyone for the 15 minutes it took for protective curtains to be hoisted, the lawn listeners to be herded in under cover and the electricians to rig up enough emergency lighting for the show to go on -- and on it went with classy sophistication.

Debussy's "Clair de Lune" unfolded in the semi-darkness, its moody ruminations illuminated by flashes of both instrumental color and lightning, and its suave elegance only highlighted by the excited chorus of ambient critters that the storm had riled up.

And then Fleming took over. Standing in the shadows, she and the orchestra brought back to life the slow and introspective world of Samuel Barber's "Knoxville: Summer of 1915." Barber set James Agee's poem with enormous sympathy, and Fleming, with an instrument that combines the twin virtues of spot-on clarity and dramatic power, seemed to be just the final link in a seamless continuum from poet to composer to performer. It was lovely and, from now on, it should always be performed with the singer in the shadows, a perfect setting for such a contemplative piece.

The lights were all back on for the second half of the program, a wry and well-balanced reading of the Ravel "Daphnis and Chloe" Suite No. 2 and, with Fleming in her element, three arias, "Poveri Fiori" from Cilea's "Adriana Lecouvreur" and, by Puccini, "O Mio Babbino Caro" from "Gianni Schicchi" and "Vissi d'arte" from "Tosca." As a seasoned artist (and an uncommonly intelligent one), Fleming can afford not to overdo passion, and in each of these arias, her power came from subtlety, gorgeous timing and devotion to the text.

She offered, as an encore, the sultriest and most suggestive performance of Gershwin's "Summertime" I've ever heard. It was spectacular.

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