Vancouver Symphony


Conductor Bramwell Tovey

Dates 20 May 2007@ 20.00 Venue Orpheum Theatre

Rossini Overture and Bel Raggio Lusinghier from Semiramide Mahler Blumine Strauss Das war sehr gut, Mandrycka (final scene) from Arabella, Morgen, op. 27, No. 4, Zueignung, op. 10, No. 1 Gounod Ballet Music from Faust Massenet L'amour est une vertu rare, Dis moi que je suis belle and Meditation from Thais Puccini O mio babbino caro from Gianni Schicci and Vissi d'arte from Tosca

Reviewer J H Stape

Once in a generation a singer seems destined to be chosen as the American soprano, the prima donna assolutta whose star power not only bestows an international career but also brings with it a special position as a representative of her country's musical culture at is pinnacle. The great Leontyne Price held this position in the public's heart for her generation, and Jessye Norman for hers. Renee Fleming has inherited their mantle: her speaking voice is pure American pie, and her looks immediately mark her out as coming from the American heartland.

The position comes with enormous responsibilities: with a big name, a "beloved" soprano has to perform at her peak every time. Last night's concert was one of mixed pleasures, taking fire with the aria from Arabella and then puttering along until the three encores when La Fleming forgot that she was a diva and all of sudden began communicating the music, not just placing the notes perfectly. The sheer beauty of the voice is undeniable, but commitment and communication are the essence of a live performance, and on that score this concert began very late, indeed.

The programme seemed not only terribly conventional but mainly conceived to conserve the voice on Fleming's current Western tour. The opening aria edged outright catastrophe. In an age that has seen Rossini's music make a big come back, with musicologists, singers, and audiences, Fleming has no idea at all of how to sing Rossini, and her highly mannered, even eccentric, rendition of a familiar aria boded ill. (During the visit of the Montreal Symphony Orchestra a few weeks ago Marie-Nicole Lemieux belted it out with charm and as if her life depended on it.)

As it turns out, this was a one off and quickly forgotten as Madame Fleming moved into territory much more her own, for she knows how to sing Strauss supremely well, the aria from Arabella compelling dramatically and musically, while the two songs were, if not absolutely illuminating (Birgit Nilsson could make you weep with "Morgen"), finely turned.

The Massenet arias were carefully placed in the voice, and Fleming's conception of the role is clearly an evolving one. (She's doing a concert version of the opera in London this summer, and this was rehearsal time.) Her French was good and her chest tones lovely. With "O, mio babbino caro" style and idiom fell apart again, as she sang the song like a Queen addressing an underling, not as vulnerable daughter pleading with her father to marry the man she loves. "Vissi d'arte" was more on track dramatically, and was vocally appealing and well thought out.

The three encores -- Strauss's Lieder (4), Op. 27, No 2 "Cäciliea," Gershwin's ever popular "Summertime," and an arrangement of "Somewhere over the rainbow" made by a friend of Fleming's -- finally got down to brass tacks. The over-self-consciousness that beset much of the programme finally went by the wayside, and this was at last what a concert should be about. The lines of communication were open, and the performer let herself go.

For many an opera singer the transition from opera stage to concert stage is far from effortless, but with her wealth of experience, Fleming was surprisingly maladroit last night: glacial, distant, and not very committed, but, oh, yes, the voice, the voice ... Yes, it is beautiful, but what about doing something with it? Needless to say there was the regulation standing ovation from a crowd famous for being easy to please. (A couple of season's ago Kiri Te Kanawa got one from the same crowd for what must have been the most lifeless and boring concert given in a century.)

The VSO offered able support throughout, Maestro Tovey an indulgent and sensitive conductor when it comes to singers, relying on his experience in the opera pit. Concertmaster Mark Frewer was characteristically blow-you-away in that hoary chestnut the "Meditation from Thais," but much of the filler was just ghastly music, the ballets from Faust just about the worst nineteenth-century French music ever written -- in a crowded field.

© 2007 J H Stape