Memorable, glamorous, musically interesting evening with Renée Fleming and the NZSO

Renée Fleming: A Gala Evening
New Zealand Symphony Orchestra, conducted by James Judd

Ravel: La Valse
Shéhérazade: ‘Asie’; ‘La flute enchantée’; ‘L’indifférent’
           Pavane pour une infante défunte
Canteloube: Songs of the Auvergne: ‘Bailèro’; ‘Malurous qu’o uno fenno’
Gounod: Jewel Song, from Faust
Richard Strauss: Waltz sequence no.1 from Der Rosenkavalier
           ‘Morgen!’ Op.27, no.4; ‘Zueignung’ Op.10, no.1
Tosti: ‘Aprile’
Puccini: ‘O mio babbino caro’, from Gianni Schicchi

Michael Fowler Centre

Saturday, 12 September 2015, 7.30pm

What a generous singer is Renée Fleming, performing so many items for us!  Yet she seemed as relaxed at the end as she was at the beginning, and in just as good voice. Although much of what she sang could be termed popular classical, it was all fine music.  It was good to see James Judd on the podium again, controlling the considerable forces.

Poised almost above the percussion, it was easy for me to look out on the Michael Fowler Centre gratifyingly almost full, and also to see the very large orchestra used for the first and many of the other items.  It was not an ideal position for reviewing, being parallel with the front of the platform, and therefore not receiving the full import of Fleming’s wonderful soprano voice.  However, thanks to others’ kindness, I was able to change at the interval to a rather better seat on the other side.

La Valse, as the excellent notes in the lavish programme explained, changed its character from when Ravel began its composition before the outbreak of World War I to what it became when he returned, a changed man, after service in the French Army throughout the hostilities.  I had not heard this considerable orchestral piece live for a very long time.  It contains some amazing effects – even though brass and percussion dominated where I was sitting.  In the case of the latter, that included seeing the tambourine player making a dash from one side of the back of the stage to the other, just in time to play that instrument towards the end of the work.  Typical of much French music was the use of the harp – in Saturday’s concert, two harps, used to magnificent effect.

Renée Fleming made her appearance wearing a beautiful gown with train and a cape – she looked stunning – to sing Shéhérazade.  This exotic work was not only demanding for her to sing, but demanding for the orchestra too.  Both emerged triumphant.  Sultry, brilliant, memorable are all appropriate descriptions of the performance. The soprano’s glorious opening low notes on the first words, ‘Asie, Asie, Asie’ (Asia) set the scene wonderfully, and she modulated her tone to great expressive effect. Fleming employed a certain amount of gesture – never overdone. The only detraction from the performance was that the lighting level was too low to enable one to read the full words and English translations of Tristan Klingsor’s fine poems the printed in the programme!   Intervention from Fleming over the interval (and from me, via an usher, too!) meant this situation changed for the second half.

The different mood of the second song allowed Renée Fleming’s voice to shine even more.  Here, Bridget Douglas’s flute playing was simply dazzling.  It was noticeable that after this song cycle and elsewhere in the concert Fleming was quick to applaud and bow to the orchestra – and in one of her little chats via microphone she commended the orchestra on its quality and flexibility, and remarked how proud we must be of it (applause).  She also commented that she liked singing in the MFC.

After the short third song in this evocative and dramatic cycle, came the interval.  Afterwards, the orchestra returned to play Ravel’s well-known Pavane.  According to the programme notes, Ravel disliked it being played slowly, like funeral music, saying ‘It was the princess who dies, not the pavane!’
Mellifluous horns against pizzicato strings was just one of the magical effects the smaller orchestra produced.

Again, outstanding flute playing featured.  However, I was moved to note ‘I prefer my music unpolluted by coughs’.  Nevertheless, the audience was mostly very attentive.

When the strings (muted) changed to bowing, a wonderful lush sound emerged, embellished by the harps.  The piece was like a scintillating example of French jewellery, although perhaps it was a little slow, bearing in mind Ravel’s remark.

Fleming returned, in a different gown, in pastel shades with a stole.  She spoke briefly about both the Canteloube and the Gounod items.  The former was notable for a lovely cor anglais solo, giving the music that rustic feel, and also for more flute from Bridget Douglas.  Of course the most popular song is ‘Bailèro’, and it received a well-justified rapturous reception from the orchestra and James Judd as well as from the audience.  Throughout her items, Fleming seemed relaxed, and to be enjoying herself.  The production of her attractive silvery tone appears effortless.

Gounod’s ‘Jewel Song’ is not an easy sing.  Fleming brought so much variety to this well-loved aria.  She had us bewitched, just as Marguerite was.  She turned to each side, and even to the orchestra when singing, so no-one could feel left out, and admired the rings she was wearing, in order to act out the aria’s words.

Her later enquiry to the audience discovered that there were many singers in the audience; they would have learned much. Renée Fleming employs portamento in her operatic arias, but it is never overdone or ugly; it embellishes and beautifies what she is singing.

I find the waltzes from Der Rosenkavalier somewhat hackneyed – thanks to Radio New Zealand Concert!  But through Strauss’s use of interesting harmonic intervals and marvellous instrumentation, plus the brilliant playing of the orchestra, I was seduced.  The five horns and three bassoons played faultlessly, and the great violin solo from Vesa-Matti Leppänen was a delight; James Judd almost danced to the music, and seemed delighted too.

Our soloist emerged again – in a third gown, of turquoise blue (later she told us it was the first time she had worn three gowns in one concert!)  She told us that she regarded herself as primarily a Strauss and Mozart singer; she made entertaining and humorous remarks too.

On to my favourites in the entire enticing programme: two of Richard Strauss’s most well-known songs.  These enchanting lieder are most often heard with piano; to hear them with orchestra was a real treat.  In Morgen! the introduction featured inspiring solo violin, with pizzicato violas, cellos, basses and harp. When the violins entered, their bowing produced a delicious pianissimo.  The singing was so
beautiful, yet simple and unaffected.

Fleming sings the words and music; she does not display herself and her skills.  Her use of the words is
extraordinarily intelligent and musical. Who could not be moved? Similarly with Zueignung.  It is a wonderfully uplifting and even jubilant song; quite sublime.  Yet people coughed even during these wondrous songs.

The name Tosti (Francesco Paolo) is associated with Dame Nellie Melba, and with rather sentimental Victorian parlour songs, written during the composer’s long residence in England.  But this song in Italian had charm, and a delicious orchestral accompaniment.  Next was ‘Top of the Pops’, Puccini’s soaring aria titled in the programme’s translation ‘Oh, dear daddy’.  Again, our superb singer took it simply, but beautifully, with well-judged portamenti. Her velvety tone did not prevent drama where appropriate.  Fleming must have sung this many times, but it sounded fresh, and it had the orchestra in splendid form, as throughout the concert, the latter receiving applause from Renée Fleming.

Not limiting herself to this ending to die for, Renée Fleming gave three encores: ‘Summertime’ from
Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess was first.  For this she changed the character of her voice; it became appropriately brassy.  Then came the audience participation – singing the chorus to her ‘I could have danced all night’ from My Fair Lady.  As a brilliant stroke to prevent the curtain calls and standing ovations from going on for hours, she finished with a much less familiar item: Marietta’s aria ‘Glück das mir verblieb’ from Korngold’s Die Tote Stadt.  Again, Fleming’s singing was deceptively simple-sounding, yet heartfelt and masterful, with wonderful dynamics.  The aria’s orchestration was splendid.

Negative points: the price of the programme was high, and there were too few sellers, resulting in long queues, which people had to abandon when the concert was about to begin.  These points meant that
many people did not have a programme.  A single sheet printed with the composers and titles of the works is common in European countries, and would have been helpful on this occasion.

All who attended were privileged to hear one of today’s great singers in top form, who had us eating out of her hand, while singing a generous and varied programme, with an orchestra in brilliant form, and a very experienced and enthusiastic conductor, who is an old friend of the orchestra, and of the audience.  A night to remember for a long time.  Thank you, all!




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