by ANGELA ALLEN
During the late 1970s and early ‘80s, Renée Fleming worked her way, in part, through State University of New York at Potsdam, and later at the Juilliard School, by singing jazz gigs. Saxophonist Illinois Jacquet thought she was good enough to tour with his big band when she was a student at Eastman School of Music. He invited her but she stuck with Eastman.
Good choice. The first opera singer to perform at the Super Bowl, Renée Fleming is called the “people’s diva.” But really?
She is quite the queen.
Decked out in dazzling evening gowns (she changed her wardrobe once, and the second blush-beige bejeweled dress drew more applause than the first), she commands the stage. So she did Saturday at Portland’s Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall when she opened the Oregon Symphony’s 120th season and belted out, microphone in hand, “Happy Birthday” to commemorate it. Oregon Symphony’s David Miller composed this arrangement with twists and turns and minor chords. It’s not your traditional birthday song, and mercifully, you can’t sing to most of it, even though the audience was itching to get in on the last act of the show.
It was obvious that Fleming, 57, pretty much planned the program, mixing up genres to a much greater extent than conductor Carlos Kalmar does when presenting classical repertoire. Just like her student days singing jazz, she does not confine herself to opera or classical music, and certainly she doesn’t put herself in a musical box when headlining in Portland.
I fell for Fleming’s rich mezzo-soprano – she has an astonishing range from Puccini-light to Wagner-serious – when she warmly sang Blossom Dearie’s “Touch the Hand of Love” with cellist Yo-Yo Ma and fiddler Edgar Meyer on the 2008 “Songs of Joy and Peace,” a holiday compilation with such other musicians as James Taylor and Alison Krauss. I fell harder for Fleming when she sang on Billy Childs’s 2014 Map the Treasure: Reimagining Laura Nyro, where she and Yo-Yo Ma did a soulful, sexy re-interpretation of “New York Tendaberry” that won a 2015 Grammy for Best Arrangement, Vocal and Instruments.
Her Portland program was similarly diverse. We heard her sing Richard Strauss’ haunting Four Last Songs, French opera arias (from works of Jules Massenet, Camille Saint-Saens and Oscar Straus), Broadway tunes and Leonard Cohen’s beautiful and often covered 1984 “Hallelujah” and Puccini. Of course, Giacomo Puccini. Her “O mio babbino caro” from his Gianni Schicchi, the first of several encores (a diva must disappear from stage and then reenter to relentless applause!), melted hearts as much as did Fleming’s appealing heart-shaped face and on-stage chatter. She let us know she doesn’t whistle and that she expected the audience to do that for her (so did Kalmar, with enthusiasm), she had fun doing Broadway, that French opera appeals to her because the heroines aren’t altogether “good.”
The evening had a kind of variety-show vibe, but who cares when Fleming can sing just about anything so well, so fully, so emotionally, even when standing right next to the conductor. She completely defies any notion of the park-and-bark symphony/opera singer.
Richard Strauss’ mid-century 11th-hour-Romantic Four Last Songs, which he didn’t live to see during their 1950 premiere, took up almost the entire first half of the evening, but it was not the best part of the concert. The first three songs about seasons of life and aging are set to Hermann Hesse’s poetry, with which Strauss became enamored in his old age, and the last, “At Sunset,” to Joseph von Eichendorff’s text. Though I imagine the audience was more familiar with the Broadway numbers than these songs, they comprise the most sung pieces in Fleming’s repertoire, and she is in love with them. Though the Strauss poem/pieces were thoughtfully shaped, achingly presented and well-paced, the orchestra overwhelmed her. After intermission, which included everything but Strauss and von Weber, the orchestra played flawlessly.
The symphony filled in the blanks with intermezzi including Carl Maria von Weber’s moody overture to the early 19th-century Der Freischutz (The Free Shooter), Emmanuel Charbrier’s “Joyeuse Marche,” and Richard Rodgers “Carousel Waltz” from the warhorse musical, Carousel. The percussion section was on its toes during that standard, and what a blast to hear the cymbals every once in a while. Since mixing it up reigned as the theme of the evening, that popular favorite naturally led into Fleming’s renditions of Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein’s King and I tunes, including “I Whistle a Happy Tune” (she can’t whistle), “Something Wonderful” and “Shall We Dance?”
As Fleming said — she loves to converse and connect with the masses between tunes — Broadway was the music she grew up with. She could be a Broadway star –almost. She can sing like one – way better. She did play the world’s most famous opera singer in 2015’s Broadway comedy Living on Love, which quickly exited Broadway after no Tony nominations. Even if her voice carries more weight with opera-goers than with Broadway buffs, she can break hearts with it no matter the genre.
Whether interpreting jazz, Broadway, opera or Strauss, Fleming’s gutsiness and poise propel her effortlessly through music’s many waters. So if you wanted a strictly classical program Saturday, you didn’t get it. Instead, you received a dazzling range of riches from musical royalty.
Angela Allen lives in Portland and writes about the arts. She is a published poet and photographer and teaches creative writing to Portland-area students. Her website is angelaallenwrites.com.
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