WASHINGTON, D. C.-If soprano Renée Fleming could be likened to a divine messenger of song or The Kennedy Center Concert Hall as such to a sanctuary, then all who were assembled for her recital on Saturday night certainly were devout worshippers in her 'sacred' space. Like any church, there are choices to be made: small chapels vs. huge cathedrals or traditional vs. modern and the list goes on. Of course, nothing about this recital was religious or sacred in the true context of the words, but the aura that was present throughout the evening could make the biggest skeptic beg to differ. Church is just like anything else, the whole experience can either be take it or leave it. You may not even like everything that transpired, but still leave with something you did not have before you came. The Kennedy Center Concert Hall was marked by a much different enthusiasm than other concerts I have attended. It was simply bursting with excitement and it was filled to capacity. Even the chorister seats on the stage above and behind Ms. Fleming were sold for this performance. All of the excitement boiled over from the moment Fleming entered onto the stage, wearing an elegant gold gown, with shimmering shoulder length sleeves. It was certainly a warm welcome and was only a foretaste of the “diva worship” that would ensue for the rest of the enchanted evening. A row partner exclaimed, “She is a superstar! A thousand or so under one roof for one person: you bet! Ms. Fleming was presented in recital by the Washington Performing Arts Society.
One of many charming moments in the recital was after WPAS President Neale Perl encouraged the members of the audience to return next month for the Kennedy Center Concert Hall debut of mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato. In her graciousness, Fleming said “Be sure to hear my friend Joyce. She is my favorite American opera singer, besides me of course!" Garnering much laughter, this was a moment that let the audience know that they were not just spectators, but participants in this music making experience. Joining the soprano for the evening was pianist Hartmut Höll, who was a sensitive musical partner throughtout the recital.
The program itself was a nice mix of the familiar and the unfamiliar. Songs by Zemlinsky and Korngold began the first half of the recital. Fleming gave a brief introduction and historical perspective about the composers. A well-informed artist, it is truly a credit that she not only performs the music but is cognizant of the repertoire that she is conveying to perhaps audience members who are hearing it and perhaps her for the very first time. In the Fünf Lieder, Fleming’s singing was marked by a luxuriant warmth, especially in Vorspiel in which she made masterful use of crescendi in the vocal phrases.
One drawback was in the instances where Fleming’s affectations leaned towards capturing the full attention of the audience with very intense pianissimi. That without a doubt had them eating out the palm of her hand. But often times, in these instances the pure eloquence of her singing was marred by uncontrolled sneezes and coughs that seemed to occur right at those significantly quieter passages. In Stromüber, the lower register of Fleming’s voice reflected beautifully the German text Der Abend war so dunkelschwer-The evening was dark and heavy. Ending with Auf see, the soprano voice of Renée Fleming shimmered like suspended crystals bathed in light. The next group consisted of songs by Korngold and his famous aria Marietta’s Lied from “Die tote Stadt” . These songs were generally reflective in nature and Fleming’s voice radiated with such control, especially in Was Du mir bist. The soprano ended the first half the recital with the aria from “Die tote Stadt” which was sung exquisitely.
For the second half of the recital, Fleming entered on stage wearing a spectacular long red gown with a pale blue (like a lavender) wrap. Her entrance alone left the audience enthralled. The songs of Mehldau were certainly a lovely contrast to the program. They were perhaps a fusion of jazz and blues, with a classical touch. Pianist Hartmut Höll was an asset in his accompaniment throughout, but was further impressive in his sensitive, lush playing of these songs. Most notable of these songs was the evocative Extinguish my Eyes, in which Fleming simply sang the audience into a state of sheer ecstasy. Rounding out the program were four assorted songs by Strauss in which Fleming delivered with long, sculpted vocal lines further accentuated by her creaminess of tone. The rousing audience was treated to several encores including Puccini’s O mio babbino caro and Bernstein’s I Feel Pretty and Somehow, Somewhere from "West Side Story."