A Magical Evening with Renée Fleming

      Sublime is the word that best describes the singing by Renée Fleming, reigning Diva at the Metropolitan Opera and down to earth "girl-next-door." It was the 85th Anniversary Celebration of the Virginia Symphony and billed as A Bel Canto Evening. The first half of the program was devoted to music by Richard Strauss (1864-1949). Four Symphonic Interludes from his 1924 opera Intermezzo opened the program and brought the audience into the musical world of Strauss, preparing us to hear his Four Last Songs (1948). Ms. Fleming sang these orchestral lieder with beauty and dramatic validity.

      Unfortunately the acoustics of Chrysler Hall devour the sound of part of the soprano and tenor range, which gave an incomplete impression of the beauty and emotion of these songs. Certainly the low vocal notes could be heard accurately and in the bel canto songs of the second half, where the orchestra accompanies rather than competes with the voice, it all worked well. We were in row J, about 1/3 of the way in where the sound was a little muffled but musician friends sitting in the rear of the orchestra seats and in the balcony complained that the orchestra was too loud. A friend who plays in the orchestra commented that the problem wasn't the orchestra (which was playing as softly as they dared) but the singer who should have sung louder. But that does not work as the subtle nuances of communication in German lied require finesse not bluster.

      Over the years I have experimented by sitting in different parts of the hall and I will assure you that it is definitely the acoustics of the hall that is the problem. When I first arrived in Tidewater in 1980 I heard Leontyne Price at Chrysler Hall and thought at first that she was losing her voice. I was sitting in the front of the Dress Circle which is considered prime seating. When I cupped my hands against my ears to take in more sound she sounded like her recordings. In the balcony, where we sat once for Barber's Nashville: Summer of 1915, the problem is magnified. The words were unintelligible even though the soprano didn't lack for vocal power and the orchestra sounded unusually bright and loud. The absolute center of the mid-orchestra seems best to me but even there part of the mid-range of tenor and soprano voices is lost. Even soprano Barbara Quintiliani (in the Verdi Requiem) and tenor Thomas Rolf Truhitte (in Mahler's Song of the Earth), who are used to singing in opera houses, disappointed us at Chrysler Hall. That would not have been true at Harrison Opera House.

Recordings of Strauss' Four Last Songs

      If you were awestruck by Ms. Fleming's second encore piece, her signature tune, O Silver Moon from Rusalka by Antonin Dvorák, you can find it on her CD Signatures, Great Opera Scenes with Sir Georg Solti conducting the London Symphony Orchestra (London 455 760-2). For the price of a CD you can re-live the experience or give yourself a first experience of the Four Last Songs sung by Renée Fleming with Christoph Eschenbach leading the Houston Symphony Orchestra (RCA 09026-68539-2) recorded in 1996. This CD also includes Cäcilie which she did as an encore in Norfolk, and four other Strauss lieder. The balance of voice and orchestra is perfect and the sound is superior throughout.

      Of the six recordings I have of these songs, Leontyne Price is also a favorite. For the inherent drama in the music there is no one better. Recorded in 1973, Erich Leinsdorf conducts the New Philharmonia Orchestra and the hall gives a crisp clarity to the sound. Price's approach is closer to Schwarzkopf's but with voice to spare. RCA 6722-2RG, Papillon Collection.

      After the recital we shared our enthusiasm with Agnes Mobley-Wynne in the lobby and she asked if we had a recording by Elizabeth Schwartzkopf. I did not but I do now, on her recommendation. From the mezzo-soprano opening notes to the clear piercing upper register, she sings with authority. Her sound overall seems covered with bursts of sound that explode. Perhaps it is the age of the recording (1953) but there are times when I wish there was a richer, fuller sound in the long sustained lines that bloom in other voices. EMI Classics, 7243 5 85825 2 9, Mono.

      Lucia Popp with the London Symphony Orchestra led by Michael Tilson Thomas (Sony SK 48 242) has a very focused lovely sound but is less emotionally expressive than my favorites. If you are looking for a cool, precise singer with modern recorded sound (1993, the year she died at age 54) this may be the one for you.

      There are six other orchestral songs on the CD by Jessye Norman and the Gewandhausorchester Leipzig conducted by Kurt Masur (Philips 411 052-2) and recorded in 1982. The sound is that of a big hall filled only by the rich, powerful sound of the music. When we first did a listening comparison of Frühling (the first song), Steve found it his least favorite but when we heard Im Abendrot (the fourth) days later, he placed her at the top of his list; certainly a phenomenal voice and a recommended recording.

      Montserrat Caballé, one of my favorite singers of all time, as usual sings effortlessly and with restraint. Her biographers suggest that the recording engineers were having serious problems on that date in 1978. Certainly the conductor, Alain Lombard, paced the Orchestra Philharmonique de Strasbourg so slowly that Caballé 's long lovely legato phrases lose the words altogether. (ERATO 4509-98499-2).

      Someday soon I want to hear another favorite Strauss interpreter, Kiri Te Kanawa sing the Four Last Songs. The recording is available.

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