Last night in Davies Symphony Hall soprano Renée Fleming concluded her Project San Francisco residency with the San Francisco Symphony by giving a duo recital with her frequent colleague, mezzo Susan Graham. The program consisted entirely of French repertoire selections that one might encounter in a Paris salon during the belle époque period from the end of the nineteenth century to the beginning of the First World War. This was the time of the French Third Republic in the wake of the Franco-Prussian War and the Paris Commune, during which the well-to-do of Paris could demonstrate that they had learned absolutely nothing from either of those horrific experiences.
The program provided Fleming and Graham with the opportunity to perform together in a generous share of duets from the art song literature, along with three operatic selections, two of which were the inevitable warhorses. Each diva also offered a modest number of solo selections, and they held the encore count down to three. A solo was also taken by their accompanist, pianist Bradley Moore.
In spite of the size of the Davies space, Fleming and Graham managed to capture rather effectively the intimacy of salon performance. With the assistance of microphones, they shared in offering some patter about salon life, the backgrounds of the composers, and some gossip about the performers of the day. It was pretty clear that they were reading from notes; but the tone of their delivery was perfect for the occasion, as was their decision to turn the evening into a gown-fest, shamelessly playing up the glamor for all it was worth and enjoying every minute of it.
Musically the two divas tended to work together well, listening to each other and supporting each other with no hint of any upstaging antics. The evening began with three relatively light selections by Camille Saint-Saëns that set the tone for most of what would follow. The third piece, “El Desdichado” (the unhappy one), had a Spanish text as a reminder that, for Parisian audiences, Spain was a favorite source of exoticism. Fleming continued that theme during her solo portion with a performance of Leo Delibes’ “Les Filles de Cadix” (the girls of Cadiz).
The most serious part of the evening was Hector Berlioz’ “La Mort d’Ophélie” from his Opus 18 Tristia. This is a setting of a ballade by Ernest Legouvé that follows very closely Gertrude’s description of Ophelia’s drowning at the end of the fourth act of William Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Berlioz originally composed this for solo voice and piano, but the Tristia arrangement was for female choir and orchestra. This provided the basis for last night’s duo performance, which poignantly captured the essence of Shakespeare that inspired Legouvé’s text.
From a musical point of view, Fleming and Graham made for a well-matched pair. Their dynamics were always well balanced, both between the two of them and with their accompanist. This was a significant improvement over the balance problems Fleming appeared to have with Robin Holloway’s orchestral setting of Claude Debussy in her performance with the San Francisco Symphony last week. On the other hand the clarity of Graham’s diction and command of French vowels never seemed to be properly matched by Fleming’s delivery of the texts, which was as disappointing as it was surprising.
On the operatic side both divas seemed to be more in their proper element, beginning with André Messager’s 1897 comic operetta about mistaken identity, Les p’tites Michu. The confused characters are named Blanche-Marie and Marie-Blanche, who think they are twins but are not really. Fleming and Graham delivered the duet in which these girls introduce themselves with just the right level of comic panache. They then moved on to the warhorses, the barcarolle duet from Jacques Offenbach’s Les Contes d'Hoffmann (the tales of Hoffmann) and the “flower” duet from Delibes’ Lakmé. Both of these closed out the scheduled program by bringing down the house.
Of the solo turns, Graham’s mini-survey of the songs of Reynaldo Hahn (and her spoken background material) were the most interesting. Graham made it clear that she enjoys singing Hahn, and each of her four selections was a gem unto itself. Fleming brought out the Spanish exoticism of “Les Filles de Cadix” after returning to Debussy’s “Mandoline” (which she sang last week in Holloway’s orchestration), along with “Beau soir” (beautiful evening). Debussy was also represented by Moore’s performance of “Clair de lune,” for which he observed that the music was, at least in part, inspired by a poem by Paul Verlaine (the author of the “Mandoline” text, which was also set in Hahn’s “Fêtes galantes,” sung by Graham).
Only one of the encores was French. Graham had talked about how Hahn would play the piano with a cigarette hanging from his lip, so she took to the keyboard to channel that spirit. She then accompanied herself in a performance of “La Vie en rose” by Marguerite Monnot and Louis Guglielmi. With words by Édith Piaf, this song postdates the belle époque by quite a stretch; but Graham caught the spirit in both French and English versions of the words.
The two duet encores were both operatic. The first honored Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart with the sister duet that opens the second scene of the first act of his K. 588 Così fan tutte (thus do all women). They closed out the evening, appropriately enough, with the Evening Prayer from Engelbert Humperdinck’s Hansel and Gretel, delivered particularly effectively in Adelheid Wette’s original German. The intimacy of their execution made the perfect conclusion to their mostly successful efforts to bring salon intimacy to Davies.