To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow

Renée Fleming, soprano; Hartmut Höll, piano
Presented by Celebrity Series of Boston
Symphony Hall, Boston, April 19, 2009

Renée Fleming is now 50 (in related news, we’re all older than we realized) but, based on her Symphony Hall recital this weekend, she’s singing as well as ever—or as poorly as ever, depending on one’s entrenched opinion of her. Fleming’s popularity (her program bio gives her the vaguely Maoist title of “the people’s diva”) has, inevitably, resulted in polarization, and Sunday’s performance probably won’t alter that calculus. The mannerisms that drive some people crazy were all there—vaults into notes from initial consonants a floor or two below; sudden shifts into near-Sprechstimme stage whisper; slide-whistle floating in high, soft phrases; a certain slipperiness of vowel (“uh” became “eh” fairly consistently). But her usual virtues abounded as well: the casually regal stage presence, the impossibly glamorous tone, the uncanny breath control.

What was noteworthy about this appearance, though, was Fleming’s leveraging of her diva celebrity to present notably non-diva repertoire—even given a couple of duds, this was one of the most intelligently constructed and emotionally interesting vocal programs I’d heard in a long time. It helps that, at least for me, Fleming is at her interpretive best in a recital setting (without the perpetual sustain of an orchestra, she’s less likely to stretch a phrase to the breaking point just because she can). It also may have helped that this was the final stop on the tour—Fleming and Höll left it all on the field, by turns playful, daring, and sometimes startlingly immediate. And yet the overall effect was distinctly ambiguous and bittersweet: grown-up complexity, in saturated color.

The centerpiece of the first half was four songs from Olivier Messiaen’s Poèmes pour Mi, the composer amplifying the liminal boundary between the individual and the collective in marriage to halogen brightness. Höll’s accompaniment was sustained, restrained intensity, breathless and quietly insistent; Fleming put the focus on Messiaen’s texts. It shifted one’s attention from the exotic beauty of the music to the near-manic drama of the poetry—the torrential prayers of “Action de grâces,” the painterly glimpse of the beloved in “Paysage.” Fleming managed a convincing attacca downshift from the “éternellement lumineux” young bodies of “La maison” to an intoxicated, drill-sergeant bark for “Les deux guerriers.” I wished she had programmed the whole cycle.

Surrounding the Messiaen were two extended monologues of pointedly darker cast. André Previn’s “The Giraffes Go To Hamburg” sets a rueful Isak Dinesen portrait of two giraffes, trapped on a steamer, leaving Africa forever for a German zoo. Previn’s music (with alto flutist Linda Toote joining Fleming and Höll) doesn’t do much more than illustrate the text’s surface, but does so with consistent flexibility and resourcefulness; the performance attained the tricky balance between journalistic observation and lush sadness. After the Messiaen was John Kander’s “A Letter from Sullivan Ballou,” the Civil War major writing to his wife shortly before being killed at Bull Run. Kander’s music is pretty light stuff—nostalgic, meandering sentimentality—but the juxtaposition with Messiaen’s warriors of love was provocative, and the programmatic sequence, the bright triumph of the “Poèmes” both set up and tempered by the bookends, made an intriguing psychological arc out of the half’s disparate parts.

The second half repeated the same pattern, a substantial burst of joy protectively encased in renunciation and loss. The center here was Richard Strauss, five songs exploring the various stages, and ages, of love. Fleming and Höll made a nearly convincing case for the over-the-top volubility of “Verführung,” though the shaggy-dog episodic nature of both poem and music never quite coalesces. “Freundliche Vision” and “Winterweihe” both explore the deeper, less fraught emotional world of mature love, and both songs received readings of warm, placid richness. The giddy, rippling “Ständchen” was a standout, Fleming and Höll in absolute ensemble in a rendition of extreme, pinball rubato: a fulsome surrender to the emo, manic-depressive exhilaration of youthful infatuation. Höll’s sensitivity came to the fore in this set; at the close of “Zueignung,” he pulled the piano back from its double-forte climax to let Fleming’s stentorian ring complete the final crescendo, a creative, nice-work-if-you-can-get-it touch.

The equivocal cushion to Strauss’s happiness was two arias by Erich Wolfgang Korngold, the comparatively obscure “Ich soll ihn niemals, niemals mehr sehn” from Die Katharin, and the more familiar “Marietta’s Lied” from Die tote Stadt. Congruent not just thematically (both characters sing of love fated to die) but musically—Fleming admitted that placing them on opposite sides of the Strauss was, in part, to ameliorate their self-plagiaristic similarity—the arias, and the performances, exemplified the Romantic happy-sad conundrum of reveling in the fullness of sorrowful emotion. (“Marietta’s Lied” was breathtakingly slow, in the Fleming manner, but Korngold can take it.)

Even a long string of encores (“it’s the end of the tour,” Fleming announced, “we’re going to do everything we know”) offset glee with wistfulness. A sassy aria from Zandonai’s Carmen-esque Conchita led into Fleming’s oft-encored “Summertime” from Porgy and Bess, more restrained than I’ve heard her do in the past, with Höll giving limpid account of Gershwin’s shifting counterpoint. Strauss’ “Cäcilie” played off a clever-melancholic mash-up of “My Funny Valentine” with Beethoven’s “Moonlight” Sonata. An audience-karaoke “I Could Have Danced All Night” would have sent everyone off with cheesy cheer, but Fleming and Höll returned for a bracingly beautiful performance of Strauss’s “Morgen.” Both poem and song lend themselves to interpretations of simple loveliness, but there’s a curious indefiniteness to the proceedings—why the focus on tomorrow and not today? Why the need for hopeful reassurance? What exactly is at the end of that walk on the beach? Happiness? Death? Both? It was as if the whole program had been designed to tease out the ambiguity of the song—and both Fleming’s serene ardor and Höll’s impeccable control, hushed to the edge of eerieness, left quiet, luminous space for that uncertainty. At the end of an afternoon notedly light on greatest hits, in “Morgen,” one of the soprano repertoire’s greatest hits of all, both singer and song were transported well beyond mere celebrity.

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