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RENÉE FLEMING

by OUSSAMA ZAHR

opera news
Portrait Photo by Andrew Eccles
Makeup and hair: Rob van Dorssen/Gown: Angel Sanchez/Jewelry: Ann Ziff/Stylist: Freddie Leiba
Living room photo: Dario Acosta/sofa courtesy of Classic Sofa, NYC
© Dario Acosta 2008
JOHN ADAMS
NATALIE DESSAY
MARILYN HORNE
SHERRILL MILNES
Renée Fleming is an icon. Now, let's discuss what that means. There are singers, including Fleming, who enjoy a charmed beginning, when critical approval and popular demand are bestowed as a single, delicious benediction. Some of those careers don't survive the fad. Then, there are very good singers who travel just below the radar, but their names fail to linger in the air after their final bow; they usually become the obsession of connoisseurs. And of course, there are the living legends who dominate the industry but don't pursue a larger brand outside of it. An icon enjoys a status that is more enduring than youth and, most of all, a presence in the culture that is undeniable. An icon becomes associated with a time. Twenty years from now, when people sit in their living rooms talking about opera in the '90s and aughts - after grumbling about the uncontained proliferation of director-driven opera - conversation will arrive promptly at Renée Fleming: what it meant to be Renée Fleming, how one became Renée Fleming, how nice it would have been to have a recording contract like Renée Fleming's, and whether or not it was possible to be happy as a singer if one wasn't (or was) Renée Fleming. That makes her an icon.

For a young soprano raised in Rochester, New York, who had trouble securing an apprenticeship with a major American company and decided early on it would be futile to lose her upstate accent, Fleming's career quickly fell into place. She had the right pedigree (Crane, Eastman and Juilliard), won the best awards (the Met National Council Auditions and the George London and Richard Tucker Awards) and amassed a succession of important debuts at the Met, Opéra Bastille, Vienna State Opera and beyond, all as the Countess in Le Nozze di Figaro. An exclusive recording contract with Decca/London followed, with Georg Solti's blessing. Fleming seemed poised for a major career. But she achieved something greater.

The recordings that Fleming has made with Decca, which document a lyric soprano of uncommonly lovely quality, are the bedrock of her success. In describing her voice, writers often reach for opulent fabrics or the richest desserts. Whatever its composition, her instrument provides many with a modern ideal of roundness, warmth and light. Indeed, an entire generation of sopranos curses the day that Fleming ever recorded "Porgi amor" or "Song to the Moon." The list goes on. The flawless pianissimo A-flat in "O mio babbino caro"; the showmanship in a high-wire act such as the Vespri bolero; the rosy blush of "Depuis le jour"; the thick, sumptuous sound of the Rosenkavalier trio - each of these recordings, and countless others, represents the harmonious design of Fleming's vocalism at its best: warm in the sensuality of its curves but cool in its perfection.

Fleming has been a pioneer in the industry for the way she matched such a voice to a look and formed her own brand. She has given a very pretty face to her music, and in doing so, she has also given a face to the opera industry as it is perceived by a wider public that understands her as its spokeswoman. A beautiful image can do many things. As Fleming wrote in her memoir, The Inner Voice, it can prompt the purchase of a CD. It can also transform the girl next door with bouncy hair into a sexy sophisticate (as it did around the release of the Renée Fleming album). And if it's just right, it can even book a cover for Town & Country and sell a perfume. Check and check.

The phases of Fleming's stage career have unfolded just as neatly, like the chapters of a novel. She began as a Mozart soprano of grace, humanity and frustrated patience; rarely have the Countess, Fiordiligi and Donna Anna been sung so beautifully. Fleming moved on, without looking back, to her favorite composer, Richard Strauss, and her probing intelligence coupled with a mild temperament make her a beguiling Arabella, Daphne and Marschallin. America's favorite soprano also put in time as the darling of American contemporary opera: André Previn's A Streetcar Named Desire, in which she created the role of Blanche in San Francisco ten years ago, remains known today because of her recording of the aria "I Want Magic." Her Italian and French heroines, Violetta, Marguerite and Massenet's Manon, draw judiciously on Fleming's generous breath control, creamy tone and agility. High-profile forays into both bel canto (Lucrezia Borgia and Il Pirata) and Handel (Alcina and Rodelinda) were celebrated with recital discs on the same theme. Like Elisabeth Schwarzkopf before her, Fleming has put her mark on a stable of roles - Mozart's Countess, the Marschallin, Rusalka, Tatiana - now uniquely associated with her vocal profile.

Few sopranos can carry an evening in the theater as elegantly as Fleming can. She has held audiences in a spell of serene devastation at the end of Desdemona's willow song; defended herself desperately in the Violetta-Germont duet; and embodied the vulnerable but still unattainable beauty of Tatiana in the finale of Eugene Onegin. Fleming rarely reaches the end of a performance without having said something eloquent about her heroine. Icon or not, that gift makes her a diva of the old school and the highest rank.

OUSSAMA ZAHR

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