Renée Redeems Ravel

Lindsay Perigo's picture
Submitted by Lindsay Perigo on Mon, 2015-09-14 08:23

'Renée Fleming, A Gala Evening' was threatening to become 'Death by Ravel' by the interval on Saturday night. Music-lovers had flocked to hear the great diva, packing the Michael Fowler Centre to the rafters, but were mistreated in the first half to a protracted assault on the waltz and a tiresome non-event of a song cycle, both by the aforementioned Maurice Ravel. The latter work seemed to confuse the audience as much as it disappointed them—they clearly thought the ordeal had ended after the first song and applauded (mutedly); at the end of the second, fearing more, they didn't know what to do; at the end of the third they applauded (in polite relief) only when conductor James Judd's putting down of the baton made it absolutely clear that the thing was over.

The war on melody continued with more Ravel in the second half, threatening to render the entire evening as défunte as the infante of the non-composer's Pavane. Then La Fleming herself re-emerged to retrieve the situation. Assuring us almost apologetically that the Sheherazade she had performed in the first half was "exotic" and "rapturous"—qualities clearly lost on most of us—she proceeded with great panache to introduce the remainder of the programme. The pain was over (aside from one further assault on the waltz, this one by Richard Strauss); it was time for the pleasure to begin.

We were treated first to two selections from Chants d'Auvergne by Canteloube, immortalised on record by the likes of Anna Moffo, Victoria de los Angeles, Frederica von Stade and Dame Kiri. The first, a song of seduction, was sung ... seductively ... and the second, "Wretched the man who has a wife [and the man who doesn't]" was performed with great gusto and humour. Then came the famed Jewel Song from Gounod's Faust, rendered with both precision and flair, Fleming's top notes as glittering as the aria's subject matter. For the first time the crowd reacted with rapture.

After a near-derailment by the orchestra in the form of more anti-waltzes, by Richard Strauss this time, La Fleming continued with exquisite presentations of his Morgen! and Zueignung. These were followed by an edifying curiosity—a ballad by Tosti, whose songs are almost invariably performed by tenors. La Fleming claimed this one, Aprile, was originally written for soprano and it was "time to take it back." This she proceeded to do with aplomb. Personally, I would have loved her to stage an outright hijack of many more of Tosti's tunes—'Renée Retrieves Tosti from the Tenors' would have made for a much more uplifting first half than Ravel.

On paper, Puccini's O Mio Babbino Caro closed the programme. So enchanting was La Fleming's delivery of it there was no way the audience was going to let her off with that. Three encores just happened (!) to be ready: Gershwin's Summertime, Loewe's I Could Have Danced All Night, and Korngold's Marietta's Lied.

Renée's talents are as varied as her costumes (in the course of the evening she went from gold to white to blue, all showing her beguiling shapeliness to tasteful advantage). For a classical singer she has a rare ability to engage her audience and knock the starch out of an evening, a facility which should have been brought into play much earlier. Prior to her penultimate number, she asked if there were any singers in the audience. To a chorus of "Yes!" she responded, "Any sopranos?" Another resounding "Yes!" Fleming: "That's what I was afraid of." Much hilarity. Then she challenged all of us to show what we were made of by accompanying her in the My Fair Lady. The key was too high for many of us, but the results were lusty, and pronounced "impressive" by the diva. Finally, she went into a tear-inducing rendering of the Korngold, providing an unassailable testament to her place among the very top tier of sopranos in the world today. "We are a last bastion of the natural human voice, unamplified," Renée reminded us; she herself is indisputably a bulwark of that bastion.

Conductor Judd and the orchestra acquitted themselves superlatively as always, fully validating Fleming's observation to the crowd, "You must be so proud of this orchestra!" Memo to whoever compiles the repertoire though: more (preferably all) ecstasy, less (preferably no) agony would be good. In that regard, I can't wait for the upcoming Classical Hits concert—uninterrupted melody. What it's all about.