Recordings > Recital

Renée Fleming: "Distant Light"

CD Button Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra, Oramo. Texts. Decca B0026096-02

Recordings Renee Fleming Cover 617
Critics Choice Button 1015 

ONE WONDERS WHY Renée Fleming, that most American of divas, hasn’t recorded Samuel Barber’s Knoxville: Summer of 1915 before. It’s tailor-made for her, with its lush, soaring melodies tinged with folksong, dramatic climaxes to show off her upper range, and a slightly sentimental text steeped in Americana. There’s a lot of what you’d expect from the soprano on this recording. As always, she sacrifices diction for that gorgeous Fleming sound—full and pearly, with sparkling vibrato and plenty of bluesy scooping into pitches. But she also makes some intelligent interpretive choices that tease out themes from James Agee’s 1938 prose poem. There are subtle shifts in the text, where the narrator seems to transform from an adult looking back at the past to a child living these moments in real time. In one passage, Fleming lists all her family members, “larger bodies than mine,” who sit out on the lawn with her to watch the stars. There’s a certain childish simplicity in her voice that turns tragic as she sings, “By some chance, here they all are, all on this earth”—as if her adult self had taken over again, remembering the fates of departed loved ones.

While the Barber is lovely, it’s slightly out of place next to the twenty-first-century Scandinavian works that make up the rest of Distant Light. Swedish composer Anders Hillborg’s 2013 song cycle The Strand Settings, written especially for Fleming, is the centerpiece of the album. In the opening movement, a setting of poet Mark Strand’s “Black Sea,” conductor Sakari Oramo delicately balances the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra’s string section in surging, shimmering cluster chords that could easily be mistaken for electronics. This droning texture withdraws to the background, becoming a representation of the dark, amorphous sea in Strand’s poem. There’s a sense of profound loneliness in hearing Fleming’s intimate sotto voce arioso suspended over this indifferent orchestral soundscape, just as the poem’s narrator stands gazing at the sea from a height, waiting for someone who isn’t returning. The walking bass and aggressive, syncopated string ostinato in the work’s third movement, “Dark Harbor XXXV,” signal a welcome change from the dreamy, slow-moving numbers. 

Strand’s poem describes fallen angels who prostitute themselves at bus stations, and Hillborg injects brassy big-band striptease themes to evoke some angelic red-light district. Fleming’s performance calls to mind her role as Blanche DuBois in André Previn’s Streetcar Named Desire—jazzy and neurotic, with an emphasis on harsh consonants and husky, moaning passages in her lower register that conjure an atmosphere of depravity.

Distant Light closes with three tracks by Icelandic singer/songwriter Björk, listed in the liner notes with her seldom-seen last name Guðmundsdóttir. She’s recently become a favorite of operatic divas looking to cross over into pop repertoire—Anne Sofie von Otter covered a couple of Björk songs for last year’s So Many Things. Swedish musician Hans Ek has expanded the tinkling music-box accompaniment of “Virus” from Björk’s 2011 Biophilia into a sweeping, cinematic arrangement for Fleming. While the soprano can sing effectively in a full-blown pop style (as heard on her indie-rock album, Dark Hope), she adopts a more classical-leaning musical-theater sound that’s easier to listen to than Björk’s affected vocal mannerisms. The piece is a macabre and somewhat obsessive ballad, and there’s a disturbing disjunction between Fleming’s gentle lullaby delivery and Björk’s lyrics, which draw on parasitic imagery as a metaphor for love. —Joe Cadagin 

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