Opera diva offers a satisfying night at the Kennedy Center

Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 9, 2011; 10:24 PM

The Beautiful Voice soared, swelled and glistened at the Kennedy Center on Saturday night. Renee Fleming, the soprano possessed of this sobriquet, gave a recital at the Concert Hall, courtesy of the Washington Performing Arts Society, to a large and appreciative crowd; she brought her A-game, and everyone was happy.

For an opera diva, it's not as hard to grab attention as it is to sustain it. Fleming has been America's reigning diva for more than a decade now, and that kind of endurance involves considerable savvy about how to use and conserve your voice (if you don't believe it, think about how many singers these days couldn't keep themselves in the spotlight). Fleming on Saturday offered some of the shining freshness that grabbed everyone's attention when she was just coming onto the scene: gleaming high notes arcing downwards like wires of gold.

She also offered a repertory that showcased her gifts beautifully - and wasn't calculated to please anybody but herself. Fleming is a big enough star to get away with offering a whole program of music that is largely unfamiliar to her audience. The focus of the evening was turn-of-the-20th-century Germany. She sang songs by Zemlinsky, Korngold and Richard Strauss. The "Five Songs" by Zemlinsky that she offered are a little-known but intriguing set. The three songs by Korngold, also little-known, were irresistibly pretty. (Korngold did lush prettiness about as well as anybody, something well known to fans of the classic film scores he cranked out after his immigration to Hollywood.) A responsible critic should probably make some tut-tutting noises about the almost saccharine sentiment of "Sterbelied," which led the singer into sudden dark dips into her lower register, but frankly, I was too busy enjoying it to take umbrage.

And Strauss is a composer who represents Fleming's sweet spot. His music fits her like a glove; her voice is high enough to reach his soaring top notes and colorful enough to do justice to its center. She sang "Winterweihe" ("Winter Consecration"), a lovely, quiet piece about an aging couple keeping love alive in the winter of life; "Winterliebe" ("Winter Love"); "Traum durch die Dammerung" ("Dreaming Through the Twilight"); and the "Song of Apollo's Priestess," a showy invocation. Only the third of these is particularly well known; all were worth hearing Saturday.

I have had a couple of gripes about Fleming's voice over the years. One concerns her tendency to apply emotion to her songs in a way that sounds artificial, either with husky breathiness or with a kind of swooping from one note to another. On Saturday, however, she played things admirably straight. In her third set, which one might describe as Rilke "covers" - four English translations from the poet's "Book of Hours," set by the jazz composer Brad Mehldau - she often sounded as though she were singing spirituals or jazz, debatable in its appropriateness to Rilke but certainly in keeping with the composer's approach in these lightweight pieces. She did a certain amount of tugging at the tempos, especially in the opera arias, fully abetted by her accompanist, Hartmut Holl. And in "I Feel Pretty" from "West Side Story," one of her four encores, she gave way to the coquettish impulse that to my ear suits her least. But for the most part, the evening offered solid singing of the kind of light, not-too-dramatic, gentle music that suits her best.

My other concern is about her artistic presence. On Saturday, I couldn't help feeling, as I've felt before, that some element of commitment or depth or zaniness or charisma was missing, something that could create a deeper connection among music, singer and public.

This might be unfair. Fleming did everything right. She talked to the audience, naturally and sincerely, about the music. She sang beautifully, showing off her vocal technique with lots of very soft singing and the trick known as "messa di voce," which involves starting a phrase very quietly, swelling to a full forte, and then pulling back again to quietness - Fleming left herself enough juice to give one final increase of the volume at the very end of the phrase a couple of times. And she chose works that suit her and that she clearly loved.

Here's an example of the quibble I had, regardless: In the one real warhorse on the main program, "Marietta's Lied" from Korngold's opera "Die Tote Stadt," she sang the tricky high notes ravishingly. But the final phrase, which is simple and straightforward and should have everyone in tears - its motto is that even death can't part people who truly love each other - made comparably little effect. For me, Fleming offers a lot of surface beauty, but I don't always get the full impact of the content.

The Kennedy Center Concert Hall is a thankless space for a vocal recital. Fleming's felt as if it would have been far better suited to the Terrace Theater, better scaled to the intimate nature both of her program and of her personality. Her voice didn't quite fill the space, although it made a far better effect than it did in the "Four Last Songs" with the National Symphony Orchestra in September, which was clearly an off night. Saturday, by contrast, was a satisfying evening: a fine portrait of a singer at her best.

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