It’s certainly ungallant, but it’s worth noting that the soprano recently turned 57, and has been singing for over thirty years, for most of that period at the very pinnacle of her profession, in a sometimes bewildering range of repertory. Under the circumstances, by now it would be only reasonable to expect to encounter anything from moderate to severe symptoms of vocal decline. And yet, in tonight’s programme of Schumann, Rachmaninov, Strauss and Patricia Barber very little indeed was evident. Perhaps the volume is a tad attenuated (though it was never a big voice to start with) and the timbre rather cloudier and slower to find focus in the low mid-range; and the soft high singing is surely not as flawlessly secure as it once was. But of any hint of incipient wobble there is not the faintest trace, the emission still perfectly firm and even; and the length of breath is still wondrously long (though funnily enough she ran herself out of breath not once but twice in, of all things, her obligatory encore of O mio babbino caro, which also rather suffered from imperfectly poised pianissimi, the voice now needing to fill out to full tone in order to forestall pitch-drift in alt). Otherwise, and without any special pleas of mitigation entered, this is essentially the voice I first heard live in 1989, its radiance undimmed, its beauty unblemished (as, I could add, is she, looking wonderful)
What has changed quite dramatically is the diva’s platform manner, once very inhibited and coolly “proper”, now a quite unbuttoned business with plentiful verbal interaction with the audience – very shrewd, this, right at the beginning, almost seeming to serve as a pre-emptive “earthing” of the crackle of high tension hanging in the air – and a much more relaxed musical physicality involving not just her (now very expressive) hands, but her whole body. Coupled with a ready wit – she confessed to having finally lost her fear of sequins, being entirely covered in them in a very beautiful Vivienne Westwood russet-gold number apparently still being fitted at 9.30 the night before – and the occasional dead-pan drollery (en passant describing Barber’s song Scream as her response to the US election process) it’s clear that Fleming is now the complete mistress of her craft, at ease not only with the technical demands of the music itself, but also with those pertaining to her public presentation thereof. It’s actually rather lovely to witness, and in some strange way inspirational too. She wasn’t always as communicative as this: but she is now, and effortlessly convincing in the process.
The worst thing I could say about the programme is that there wasn’t nearly enough Strauss, and that what there was, wasn’t well selected: just the five songs, all but one short (Ruhe, meine Seele the exception, a performance of impeccable line and rapt intensity, darkly covered in a tone heavy with tragic weight) and mostly very (over?) familiar. She should surely investigate the composer’s vast output of lieder – well over 200 – with a view to presenting some of the lesser known, indeed some of the unknown, ones. At all events she should drop Das Bächlein promptly from her repertory, dedicated as it is to Josef Goebbels, and with its grim, thrice-uttered elaborate melisma on the (supposedly Goethe’s) words “Mein Führer” (written in 1935 in a futile attempt to mend fences having been indiscreet enough with his views about the Nazis to warrant peremptory sacking from his post as President of the Reichsmusikkammer at the age of 71). And the soprano needs to beware of mannerist crooning and over-egging the pudding in Meinem Kinde, quite winsome enough as it is without underlining the fact.
Schumann’s Frauenliebe und -leben opened the recital and was in the event the single most substantial item – or group of items – heard all night. The cycle has only just entered Renee Fleming’s repertoire (and either I misunderstood her opening remarks, or she genuinely entertains the quaint belief that the it’s rarely performed by women for PC reasons and that she’s therefore a lone champion, whereas I couldn’t count the number of times I’ve heard it, both live and on disc, sung by any number of female singers). The faster numbers present problems of articulation – Fleming’s is a relatively “slow” voice not noted for its nimbleness, and ideally needs long note values and/or sedate tempi in order to unfurl its splendours – and something skittish like the second song, Er, der Herrlichster von allen, emerges as a bit of a gabble, including the grupetti, especially when, as here, she is working flat-out to enunciate the (thoroughly undistinguished) German text as clearly as possible. Elsewhere the erotic glow in her tone was ideally deployed before the sudden catastrophe of her husband’s death befalls the narrator in the eighth song, Nun hast du mir den ersten Schmerz getan, at which point the soprano coloured her tone with fine imaginative intelligence, heavy with emotion yet also somehow numb. Best audience behaviour, too, refraining from applauding every song willy-nilly, partly due, I suppose, to Hartmut Höll’s clear intention as an exemplary accompanist to link the songs together, and partly to the Barbican’s long-overdue decision to project very legible onstage surtitles for a recital, which made it plain that we were listening to an extended narrative that spanned the whole cycle.
The group of five Rachmaninov songs which concluded the first half were treated rather less strictly, with some highly characteristic blues-ey note-bending from the soprano, which has been a constant reminder throughout her career of her origins as a jazz singer. I thought it, if not exactly obtrusive, a little ill-judged, but then I’m picky that way. Conversely, the refulgent sound and nostalgic sense she brought to bear on the best-known of them – Sing to me no more, beautiful maiden – was as near perfect as I ever recall hearing, and only left one wanting more. As I’ve mentioned above, this wasn’t exactly forthcoming in the rather parsimonious Strauss selection at the start of the second half (all of twelve minutes’ worth), and though the subsequent Patricia Barber songs are both effective and in certain senses original, they play to a more Broadway-orientated aesthetic than the other items and at 13’ didn’t feel, to me at least, as capable of providing a properly weighty conclusion to an evening’s endeavours. The official recital thus ended at 9.05, which gives some idea of the second half’s unsatisfactory brevity and lack of musical substance, but which of course leaves the way clear for what is so often the highlight of these affairs, the encores.
The first, Gershwin’s Summertime, was sung as if in some sort of sexually induced coma, stunningly sultry and sumptuous (though the soft high notes take more audible effort both to “place” and to maintain than of yore). As I’ve already noted, O mio babbino caro did not go well at all, the one item that fell into the category of a failure, more effortfully crooned than properly sung. The third and final encore was introduced by Fleming who chose to point out, quite rightly, the remarkable fact that Strauss’ Morgen!, so similar in mood and melodic feel to Im Abendrot, was actually written some fifty and more years earlier (so much for his “late style”) and then went on to apostrophise the kind of deeply-felt marital relationship both songs adumbrate, evidently unaware – as undoubtedly was the composer himself – that the man who wrote the poem, John Henry Mackay, was not only a Scots anarchist but also a militant gay activist avant la lettre and that the hands being held were probably both quite hairy. Oh well, you can’t expect a diva to do her homework, now can you? Never mind: her singing of Morgen! was exceptional, as perfect as the Puccini was flawed, and drew the biggest ovation of the whole, brief evening, boding well for the new Der Rosenkavalier at the ROH in December, where we’ll finally get to hear the diva in her absolute element at far greater length.