The Un-Diva: Renée Fleming Has Virtuosity Under Control

Renée Fleming, with Vittorio Grigolo, in the Washington National Opera's
Renée Fleming, with Vittorio Grigolo, in the Washington National Opera's "Lucrezia Borgia," which opens tomorrow. It will be Fleming's WNO debut. (By Karin Cooper)
  Enlarge Photo    
By Anne Midgette
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 31, 2008

When Peter Gelb started sweeping his new broom through the halls of the Metropolitan Opera after taking over as general manager in 2006, one change he announced was that opening night at the Met would no longer feature a big-name singer in random acts from a bunch of different operas. But last month the Met opened its 2008-09 season with Renée Fleming, America's sweetheart soprano, appearing in -- well, random acts from a bunch of different operas. Fleming is probably the biggest American opera star today; she was already under contract, and she was going to get her gala.

It was the start of a big autumn for the singer. Her Met opening night, broadcast live to movie theaters and computer screens around the world, showed her in specially designed couture gowns by Lagerfeld, Lacroix and Galliano; Coty released a perfume (La Voce di Renée Fleming) for the occasion. Also out this fall is a new CD of songs and arias by Richard Strauss, the composer she is best suited to sing. Next up at the Met is Massenet's "Thaïs," which happens to be the role in which she made her Washington opera debut with the Washington Concert Opera in 1991. And tomorrow she makes her first appearance with the Washington National Opera in the title role of Donizetti's "Lucrezia Borgia," a role she will sing three more times, with the concluding performance on Nov. 11. This is a major event for Fleming, tantamount to getting back on a bicycle after a fall. In 1998, she was booed in the role at La Scala -- whether in response to her lack of mastery of the bel canto style; anti-American sentiment; the activity of an organized group in the audience; or some combination of the three has been the stuff of discussion in opera chat rooms ever since.

Whatever it was, it remains a manifestation of how strongly Fleming, the all-American golden girl, divides audiences. Her fans are awed by her beauty, both physical and vocal (she has released a CD called "The Beautiful Voice"). Her detractors point to her coolness as a performer and the distinctive vocal mannerisms that emerge again and again in her singing, particularly a tendency to scoop up to high notes.

It may be the fate of every popular diva to be hated as well as loved. Even Maria Callas had her detractors. What is striking about Fleming, 49, is that she is the least diva-like of divas. Part of this is a function of her carefully cultivated girl-next-door persona. She's the singer who plays well with others, who takes direction, who stays home as much as possible to be with her daughters, who wrote her own memoir (with a little help, she's said in interviews, from the novelist Ann Patchett) and didn't dish any opera dirt, who sang jazz as a student and hasn't lost touch with her roots.

But Fleming's real lack of diva-hood shows itself onstage. One of the most striking things about her gala Met opening in September was the fact that she made so little impression. She went through all the motions and made some very pretty sounds, but apart from the final number, the last scene of Strauss's "Capriccio," none of it was particularly distinctive. When you think of a great diva opening the season at the leading opera house in the country, you think of a riveting presence delivering a performance of significance; Fleming, by contrast, almost got lost in some scenes. I found it particularly notable that when she ran offstage after Violetta's great, heart-wrenching declaration of love in Act 2 of "La Traviata," it didn't occur to anyone to applaud. Had the audience not already known that she was a major star, nobody might have noticed.

Fleming has compensated for her lack of inherent pizazz by developing a distinctive stamp that she puts on each piece of music. The only problem is that it feels imposed, rather than drawn from what is already there. On the new Strauss album, she works to articulate each word and nuance to such a degree -- her signatures include an emotive breathiness on individual words and a glueyness of diction, as if savoring syllables for a little extra time -- that she sometimes gets in the way of the vocal line, diminishing her own effect.

To me, Fleming's singing conveys a sense of control more than anything else. In this, she is reflecting an aesthetic of our time. If the aesthetic of the 1940s involved a rounded, slightly plummy sound (which you can hear in movies of the era, as well as opera recordings), the aesthetic of the early 2000s in classical music involves spelling everything out, making the bewildering forest of the standard repertory as clear and transparent as possible. A flattened, even comic-book clarity comes out in one star performance after another: Lang Lang, Yo Yo Ma, Bryn Terfel. Even the fine Christopher Taylor in his performance of Messiaen's massive "Vingt Regards sur l'Enfant Jésus" last weekend at the Library of Congress offered some vignettes that seemed to be illustrated with figurative balloons and the words "Bang!" "Pow!" "Zap!" Fleming, too, is trying clearly to telegraph everything that's happening, and make sure that she's in charge of how the message gets out.

Control is not, in itself, a bad thing. The whole art of opera singing is in a sense artificial and controlled. Maria Callas, that consummate stage animal, was a fanatic calculator. Like Fleming, she became a singer through sheer force of will (Fleming is very open about saying she was not a "natural" singer); and like her, she worked in great detail on her interpretations. If memory serves, the engaging but rather unreliable Callas biography by Arianna Stassinopoulos (now Arianna Huffington) includes an account of one production in which Callas ran down a flight of stairs; her foot hit exactly the same step at the same moment in the score, night after night. Now that's calculation.

But Fleming is not a stage animal. Her control, her calculation, shows. Her performances often appear to be set off in quotation marks. She is not one to lose herself in the music; she is always reining herself in. When she attempts to convey wild abandon, the result can be alarming: A live recording of "I Could Have Danced All Night" in which she tried to achieve humorous freedom by speaking, even screaming, the words became an instant joke classic on the Internet.

It is interesting to compare her "Four Last Songs" on the new Strauss CD, under the direction of Christian Thielemann, with the earlier account of the same piece she recorded with Christoph Eschenbach. The new interpretation is altogether more focused. Fleming has her package down. Her voice and manner are firmer and more deliberate, matching Thielemann's conducting, which is muscular in juxtaposition to Eschenbach's hazy stew of sound.

At her best, Fleming is the finest singer of Strauss and Mozart around today. What she has not yet demonstrated is an ability to make the Italian repertory equally her own. Bel canto, the early-19th-century style of Donizetti, Bellini and Rossini (and therefore of "Lucrezia Borgia"), does call for a beautiful voice and pinpoint control, things Fleming certainly has in her arsenal. "Lucrezia" will be a chance for her to show the purists whether she can also master the style.

Hitherto, the voice has remained beautiful -- and distant. It is as if she were working to present it in a glass case, on a velvet pillow that gets more and more plush every year, even as the glass keeps us from getting any closer.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company