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Brava, Diva!  Renée Fleming Sings at NJPAC
by Sherri Rase     |      Bookmark and Share
photo by Ken Howard
Renée Fleming as Rusalka

Sunday, January 29 was a very auspicious day at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center (NJPAC) in Newark.  Special events spanned the afternoon, from André Gremillet and Jacques Lacombe’s presentation of the dazzling 2012-13 season for the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra (NJSO) to the tour of her career so far offered by Renée Fleming, who demonstrated ably how she’s earned the appellation “the people’s diva.”
On Sunday afternoon the audience, who usually consists of stalwart subscribers from the nearby area in New Jersey, was joined by people from Across the Great Water–Manhattanites!  There are times when you’d swear the Hudson was as wide as the Mississippi and as far as the Nile, but when you make the right event happen then people come.  Every tier of the Hall was filled to the rafters with music lovers awaiting this daughter of Euterpe.
The energy would need to begin largely for the afternoon to be a success and large and in charge came Giuseppe Verdi’s “La forza del destino” Overture.  Acoustically sublime, every note perfectly wrought and hinting at what would come when the NJSO paired with Ms. Fleming.  The wait wasn’t long before Ms. Fleming came onstage in a lovely seafoam gown with a filmy wrap that was used to great dramatic effect in the songs from Maurice Ravel’s “Shéhérazade,” which are “Asie”, “La flûte enchantée” and “L’indifférent.”  The music is lush, and Ms. Fleming sagely suggested following along with the lyrics in the program, as they are beautiful word-paintings.  The themes are sweeping and spiced with Asian flavor but still within the vocabulary of French music at that time.  “Asie” is literally a musical dream-wish of everything the singer would like and expect to see on her travels to the vast and antique land, endlessly fascinating and cruel and exotic.  The enchanted flute of the middle song wrings longing from the listener as she knows it is her lover playing and each note is like a caress from someone she loves, but may not meet. Finally “L’indifférent” is a memory in the making as the singer beckons the comely youth, in whose passing the memory of what never will be is born.
Seguing to a different Frenchman in a different time, Charles Gounod’s “Faust” tells the tale of a good girl gone very, very bad.  Ms. Fleming selected “The Jewel Song,” where Marguerite the Good becomes essentially Maggie, imagining herself in the eyes of the handsome man who’s passed as she’d look in those jewels.  This performance is where Ms. Fleming went from the third person story teller of “Shéhérezade” to the first person “Faust” heroine and Marguerite was played with youth and verve and glimpses of the woman she may have become if she hadn’t met Méphistophélès.  The orchestra acted as danseur in the pas de deux with Ms. Fleming and Maestro Lacombe’s direction connected perfectly with the timbre of the voice.
After a brief intermission, it was time to go from the Far East to Eastern Europe and begin to work our way West.  Opening with Antonin Dvorák’s “Slavonic Dance Opus 46 Number Eight”, the first portion was the awakening needed to get the attention of the audience and bring their minds fully back.  The milder interlude and the return of the melody were artfully played and the tension created and released brings us into a very different part of the world.  We were ready for the return of Ms. Fleming, resplendent in a fuschia gown with matching satin wrap.
Charmingly set up, Ms. Fleming provided the stories behind the selections of first Rusalka’s “Song to the Moon” from the opera “Rusalka” and then Hanna’s “Vilja-lied” from Franz Lehár’s “The Merry Widow.”  The journey from the land of the Odalisque to the lands of the Water Nymph and the Wood Nymph, respectively, seems a vast gulf indeed.  It became very clear why Ms. Fleming considers Rusalka’s paean to be one of her signature arias as it makes the wistfulness of the benighted nymph tangible as she wishes on the moon, not knowing to be careful of what she asks.  The penultimate “nezhasni” is a gloriously articulated plea before the final and then the cadence.  The audience was transfixed.  The “Vilja-lied” was clearly an audience favorite.  How different Czech and German are as languages and these pieces especially–Rusalka’s clear and distant pining contrasted with the pierced heart of the young hunter whose Vilja’s caress has brought to his knees.  When Ms. Fleming motioned for the audience to join her in the refrain, a low susurrus became the audience singing “Vilja, oh Vilja, du Waldmagdelein” and it positively sent chills up my spine at the connectedness–we would do whatever the Diva asked, and she was giving us so much!
The orchestra returned for a rousing rendition of the overture to Johann Strauss, Jr.’s “Die Fledermaus.”  Third among his operettas, it is one of the few works from that era of light classical music presaging today’s musical theatre still common in orchestral performance.  This brought the energy way, way up for the final portion of the program.
Ms. Fleming again presented the rapt audience with a delicious pairing of two different versions of “La Bohème,” sharing with us that Ruggero Leoncavallo actually had the libretto before his friend Giacomo Puccini, and gave it to him when he decided initially not to set it.  “That was a BIG mistake,” opined the Diva, to laughter and a smattering of applause.  “Donde lieta uscì” is the Puccini selection, where Mimi bids Rodolfo adieu.  Ms. Fleming’s effortless performance and especially the graceful arc of sound through the final farewell articulated the sway of our heroine’s resolve–soft, then firmly supported, then dying with her effort as our heroine soon will herself.  Very different then, Leoncavallo’s portraits of Mimi and Musette as each provides a teasing sketch of her friend.  Mimi sings of Musette’s charming ways and her beauty, and how she loves not a particular man, but Love itself.  Musette’s description reflects her more worldly view that Mimi enjoys the trappings of love, but deigns to go further into earthly delight with her ardent swains.  Mimi is the closet party girl, and if you catch her at the end of the night, you might see her truly.  Ms. Fleming’s performances were indeed two sides of a coin and presented so closely, they seemed especially masterful.  The final portion of the program was Puccini’s Tosca’s aria “Vissi d’arte,” with beautiful sustain on “perchè me remuneri così?”   Thus, while God may not have repaid Tosca as she’d have liked, Ms. Fleming was warmly rewarded with standing applause.  Bravissimo, Diva!  Noblesse oblige, of course there were encores!
The first encore is also a signature for Ms. Fleming, “O mio babbino caro,” from Puccini’s “Gianni Schicchi,” was achingly beautiful.  She was luminous and glowing, like a jewel herself.  Next was Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim’s “I Feel Pretty,” from “West Side Story,” chosen because whenever she wears pink she feels pretty–of course, we found her beautiful.  Finally, came Ms. Fleming’s last performance of the day, “Somewhere,” also from “West Side Story.”  Brilliantly selected, as each person in the audience has a personal version of what it means, and the orchestra played it with a hint of syncopated, cabaret-style swing after the bridge and that’s when you could feel the audience literally moved by her performance … sniffling began around me and you could virtually hear tears forming.  Quite honestly, THAT is the power of Renée Fleming live.


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