With all the attention lavished on pop singers today, it’s both refreshing and salutary to return to the study and appreciation of a genuine diva. Renee Fleming has dedicated her career to the cultivation and development of her voice, and attained the ultimate degree of technical proficiency and artistic expression. No other singer performing today can claim Fleming’s command of such difficult and rewarding material as the Last Songs of Richard Strauss, the verismo arias of Giacomo Puccini and Ruggero Leoncavallo, or the sophisticated art songs of Olivier Messiaen. Her appearance at the Granada on Wednesday, December 9, with pianist Gerald Martin Moore is the kind of musical event considered a highlight of the season in Baden-Baden or Vienna, and serves to confirm once again that Santa Barbara, thanks to CAMA, is firmly ensconced among the small handful of prime destinations for the world’s greatest musicians.
Fleming’s program, which was announced in mid November, spans the wide range of work she has been performing recently and promises a night of breathtaking beauty and challenging musical discoveries. From Messiaen’s cycle Pomes pour Mi, Fleming has selected the five songs from the more sensual second book. Fleming performed the cycle in its entirety as part of the opening night of this year’s New York Philharmonic season, a concert broadcast by PBS and that can still be seen on YouTube in all its epic intensity. The intimacy of the recital version of this heartbreaking classic of romantic love should be overpowering. The French connection continues with works by Henri Dutilleux and Jules Massenet, while in the second half, Fleming turns to works from her two most recent recordings, the Strauss’s Last Songs and a selection of verismo arias both familiar and obscure.
Having founded her reputation with Mozart in The Marriage of Figaro, Fleming has gone on to be associated with Strauss through an exceptionally well-received set of performances highlighted by her Marschallin in Der Rosenkavalier, a role that Fleming will reprise with the Metropolitan Opera in early January. The Italian arias she sings on Verismo, her most recent CD, represent a slight departure in that, as she said when I spoke with her over the phone, “I haven’t sung much Puccini.” The singer plans her recordings with the utmost care, both in terms of the musicians involved, and in relation to her discography. Of this one, she said that it supplies “what’s missing from what I have recorded thus far, insofar as it is more dramatic in scope.” She also said that she found the material a “perfect fit,” and reveled in its passionate expressiveness. “The experience was a rewarding one in every way, as Marco Armiliato did a wonderful job leading these young players [the Orchestra Sinfonica di Milano], and the music, while not all of it is well known, is of the highest quality,” said Fleming. Critical response, as with Fleming’s other recent release of the Strauss Last Songs, has been overwhelmingly positive, citing her “creamy tone” and “immaculate technique.” Fans of Italian opera will appreciate hearing some rarities at the Granada, including songs from the opera Siberia of Umberto Giordano and the Conchita of Riccardo Zandonai.
Fleming freely admitted that her schedule in this, the year of her 50th birthday, is “pretty grueling,” but she went on to say that she relishes the opportunity to appear on the Granada stage in Santa Barbara. “It’s a challenging program,” she said, “but that is intentional, because I know that Santa Barbara is a singer’s town, and I believe that the audience will be able to appreciate it.”
Renee Fleming and Gerald Martin Moore will perform at the Granada Theatre (1214 State St.) on Wednesday, December 9, at 8 p.m. For tickets and information, call 899-2222 or visit camasb.org.