Renée Fleming at Royal Festival Hall

Romeo and Juliet [Selections from Suites 1 & 2, Op.64a & Op.64b]
Eugene Onegin – Tatiana’s Letter Scene
Romeo and Juliet – Fantasy Overture
La bohème – Musetta svaria sulla bocca viva; Mimi Pinson la biondinetta
Siberia – Nel suo amore
Manon Lescaut – Sola, perdutta, abandonata

Renée Fleming (soprano)

Royal Philharmonic Orchestra
Charles Dutoit

Reviewed by: Graham Rogers

Reviewed: 3 November, 2009
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Royal Festival Hall

Renée Fleming. © 1999-2005, Prashant SehgalAdored the world over, Renée Fleming (cheered at this Royal Festival Hall appearance before she had even sung a note) is indisputably one of the greatest sopranos of her generation. She didn’t disappoint.

The most substantial operatic portion of the evening was the ‘Letter Scene’ from Tchaikovsky’s “Eugene Onegin” (which sat nicely with the Russian orchestral works). Fleming captivated with a wide range of emotions, fully embodying Tatiana’s inner turmoil: a commanding, intense and radiant performance. By contrast, the two vignettes from Leoncavallo’s take on “La bohème” (contemporaneous with Puccini’s version) were delightfully bright and bubbly. Leoncavallo’s Mimi and Musetta each introduce the other to the men (and the audience) amid the festive buzz of Café Momus. Singing each role in turn, Fleming seized the only opportunity of the evening to display her unrivalled talent for sparkling lightness.

The very title of Giordano’s “Siberia” conjures up grave, bleak images – the epitome of verismostyle. Fleming’s rendition of Stephana’s plaintive, tragedy-infused Act One aria was supremely lyrical and poignant, aided by a sensitive accompaniment of muted strings. The most tragic offering was saved until last: a passionate and heart-rending account of Manon’s hopeless final melt-down from Act Four of Puccini’s “Manon Lescaut”.

The only pity was the abrupt ending – in operatic context, Puccini’s music flows on; the inevitable price to pay for presenting ‘bleeding chunks’ of opera and which meant that the programme ended on a faintly dissatisfying note – a feeling exacerbated by the seemingly ungenerous way she brusquely announced that we would be getting only one encore. It was, however, wonderful: a sumptuous rendition of ‘O mio babbino caro’ (from Puccini’s “Gianni Schicchi”), combining breathtakingly exquisite poise with an appropriately capricious twinkle in the eye. Under Charles Dutoit, the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra provided taut accompaniment and a luscious romantic sweep.

Although Fleming’s contribution amounted to less than a third of the concert, she was the main attraction – no matter how well-planned the rest of the programme. The two contrasting Russian versions of Romeo and Juliet nicely complemented each other and the arias – if the orchestral performances had been more memorable. As it was, Dutoit and the RPO turned out respectable and often-enjoyable accounts of Tchaikovsky’s Fantasy Overture and selections (again!) from Prokofiev’s ballet score, neither of which fully caught fire. The big moments in both were suitably grand – earth-shatteringly so in the Prokofiev, when percussion (not always on the beat) and brass were letting rip. The scampering strings at the beginning of ‘Death of Tybalt’ were impressively tight, but the grotesque dead-march was not chilling enough. The soft woodwind chorale at the end of the Tchaikovsky was beautiful, and the cellos deserve praise for their rich sound and commitment. But overall both works were too cool – more than routine, certainly, but lacking the full-on engagement needed to produce gripping performances of such passionate music.

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