Renée Fleming: "Guilty Pleasures"
Philharmonia Orchestra, Lang-Lessing. Texts and translations. Decca 478 5107
At this point in her career, Renée Fleming can record pretty much whatever she wants — and here, she does. The unifying theme of this recording is music she particularly loves to sing. And why not? It stands to reason that anything she loves to sing, her fans will love to listen to. Running the gamut from well-known songs to obscure arias and encompassing an impressive eight languages, the eclectic program is well-ordered and engaging. Some songs, such as "Nana" and "Cancíon," from Falla's Siete Canciones Populares Españolas, and Rachmaninoff's "Sumerki," from Twelve Romances, have been cherry-picked from their cycles, and while their excerption will irritate purists, the songs stand just fine on their own as miniatures.
Berlioz's "Villanelle" makes an inviting opener, although Fleming's occasional scooping detracts from the song's inherent youthfulness. Duparc's "Phidylé" is a stunner, building to a sensual climax that more than justifies the recording's title. In Delibes's coquettish bolero "Les filles de Cadix," saucy castanets exchange in seductive byplay with Fleming's flirtatious trills. She spins out long, rolling lines in Licinio Refice's reflective "Ombra di nube"; the hushed, delicate opening is one of her most gratifyingly simple moments. Especially delicious is the aria "Vodopad moy dyadya," from Tchaikovsky's Undina. The water nymph of the title is an alternate incarnation of Dvořák's Rusalka, one of Fleming's signature roles. Fleming's eloquent phrasing is an asset when fulfilling Tchaikovsky's emotive melodic demands, and she ends the aria with a shimmering messa di voce on a high A. In a complementary turn, Fleming also presents Dvořák's Armida as an alternate to Rossini's sorceress — another role she has essayed at the Met and elsewhere — building the aria, "Za stihlou gazelou," to an ardent climax.
Having created the role of Countess Almaviva in John Corigliano's Ghosts of Versailles, Fleming here offers Marie Antoinette's final aria, "Once there was a golden bird." Her approach is a bit mannered — arguably appropriate for the infamously image-conscious queen. However, the elegiac lyric and vaporously prickly music point to late and hard-won self-knowledge that Fleming doesn't quite relay. Her murky diction doesn't help, although, to be fair, much of the piece lives in the stratosphere. Her operatic "Danny Boy" lacks the directness that best enables this slender, timeless ballad to pierce the heart.
Certainly, any guilty pleasure worth its salt begs to be shared with a good friend, and in that spirit, mezzo Susan Graham joins Fleming for the flower duet from Lakmé, their close working relationship yielding an instinctive unity of timbre and inflection. Fleming trims her ample soprano to match the taut poignancy of "La Delaïssádo," from Canteloube's Chants d'Auvergne, and she emphasizes the leisurely decadence of Johann Strauss, Jr.'s "Frag' mich oft, woran's denn wohl liegt." In "Träume," from Wagner's Wesendonck Lieder, Fleming allows the passion to leak out phrase by phrase until it overtakes her in waves of yearning, and her voice responds with the kind of lush outpouring for which she is justly celebrated.
JOANNE SYDNEY LESSNER
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