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Mastering the art of entertainment: Renée Fleming in recital

Renée Fleming (Jonathan Tichler)

You have to hand it to the soprano Renée Fleming. You may like other singers better, but no American opera singer is more famous or successful in the eyes of the public. She knows how to use her voice. And, as she showed at her recital with Olga Kern, presented by Washington Performing Arts at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall on Monday night, she knows how to work a crowd and deliver the goods.

Fleming’s recital was not the broadest spectrum: art songs by Schumann, Rachmaninoff and Richard Strauss. It was, however, a lot of music, in a field where some singers of her stature content themselves with seven or eight well-known numbers and call it a night. The program tested her limits and took the audience to some unfamiliar places — particularly in the concluding set of five songs by Strauss, whom she described as her “desert island composer,” which included some that are little-performed (“Das Bächlein,” “Die heiligen drei Könige aus Morgenland”). And her presentation showed that she has learned to be a consummate entertainer — which is not, contrary to popular belief, a pejorative. By the end, the audience was eating out of her hand.

If Fleming is controversial among aficionados, it's less because she has engaged in various crossover endeavors (The pop album! Singing at the Super Bowl!) and more because of her stylistic choices. When she has the space, while singing, to think about how she wants to present a vocal line (rather than simply focusing on getting the sound out), she sometimes resorts to a breathy faux-expressiveness, and sometimes to a kind of coquetry that I find hard to take. Yet when she sings straight-out, without mannerisms, she can make a glorious sound.

On Monday, she offered some of both. The recital was, in fact, an intriguing view of an experienced artist at her craft — most interesting not for the so-called interpretive choices but for the moments when she found herself up against her vocal limits (Fleming is 56) and pushed through them. In, for example, the last of a set of six songs by Rachmaninoff, “Spring Waters,” which was a tall order for an already tired voice, she found ways, in the words of Tim Gunn, to make it work.

[How Renée Fleming focuses on the voice — and looks to life after singing.]

Not every singer understands how to mingle opera-star glamour with the relative intimacy of the recital stage. The real measure of Fleming’s achievement, at this point in her career, is that she has developed a style that allows her to do both: to present the appearance of artistry and the trappings of superstardom (down to the requisite gown change, from vivid blue in the first half to gold lame swathed in tulle in the second), while offering a down-to-earth persona (including a joke about the gowns) in her comments from the stage. Her choice of pianists was another canny step. Kern is a concert pianist in her own right; she tended to thunder a bit and was not always clean in her playing, but she represented a strong artistic partner if not a particularly sensitive one.

Kern also, according to Fleming, influenced her choice to sing Rachmaninoff, and this Russian set shook the evening out of the good-girl, coquettish tone of the opening cycle, Schumann’s “Frauenlieben und -leben” (A woman’s loves and life). These eight Schumann songs, which purport to outline the female experience from the moment she meets Mr. Right through marriage, baby, and his death, can come off as dated unless given a more convincing reinterpretation than Fleming offered; artistically, Fleming tends to color within the lines of whatever piece she’s given.

Some of the Rachmaninoff songs, by contrast, call for outpourings of sound that are a challenge for Fleming’s lyric voice, and this was sometimes a good thing. The first one, “In the silence of the mysterious night,” forced her simply to stand and deliver, and it was some of the best singing of the evening.

That Strauss is home turf led to more mannerisms in the better-known songs she offered, “Ruhe, meine Seele” (peace, my soul) and “Cäcelie,” her first encore. However, Fleming was a fine guide through repertory that not everyone knew, sustaining a walking tempo by the flowing piano runs of “Das Bächlein” (the brook), or bursting into jewel-like song with “Die heiligen drei Könige” (the three holy kings from the East).

Fleming’s orchestration of her encores — four of them — should be the object of study for every aspiring young singer. She started offering them as soon as she came back onstage with the first round of applause: She knew what effect she wanted to achieve and wasn’t going to rely on the audience calling her back time after time to get it. While firing up the crowd, she marshalled her own energies to maximize her return on her vocal investment — having the audience, for example, sing along with the second verse of “I could have danced all night,” her third encore, so that she had plenty of steam left for a culminating high note.

Fleming’s mannerisms sometimes strike me as toe-curling. Her second encore, “Summertime,” though studded with lovely individual notes, had so much pushing and pulling of the line, cooing and heavy breathing, that I wanted to hide. Yet I also found much to admire — even the way that she used those mannerisms to calculated effect, as part of her adroit sleight of hand in playing at once the big star and the girl next door. Admirable, too, was how hard she worked; though almost completely out of gas, she forced her final encore, the Puccini aria “O mio babbino caro,” to succeed. If you’re going to set yourself up as an entertainer, you have to be able to pull it off. A lot of classical singers can’t. Fleming did, leaving a hall full of happy people who were all smiling at each other as they walked out.