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Posted on Sun, Jan 16, 2011 : 9:45 p.m.

Hill Auditorium audience loves Renee Fleming - and the feeling is mutual

By Susan Isaacs Nisbett


Renee Fleming listens to applause at Hill Auditorium on Sunday.

Melanie Maxwell |

You might say we’ve been friended by Renee Fleming, and that’s no small deal.

America’s reigning soprano, in town Sunday afternoon for a recital with pianist Hartmut Holl and to receive the University Musical Society Distinguished Artist Award at the 16th annual Ford Honors Gala, told the capacity Hill Auditorium crowd that both the hall and its audiences were among her favorites anywhere. Which led UMS president Kenneth Fischer to quip, during the award-presentation portion of the program, “We’re so glad you love us, but this little ceremony is all about how much we love you.”

Peace, love and friendship are pretty good ways to ring in the new year, but so is gorgeous singing, and the afternoon’s feel-good cornucopia extended to the latter. Fleming, dressed in a liquidy bronze gown, jeweled at the shoulder, for the first half of the program and an iridescent sea-green taffeta with net sleeves (and more sparkles) for the second, served as her own easy-going MC for the recital — as gracious a “come-on-in, folks” host as she is for the Met HD broadcasts. And if the program itself got off to a bit of a slow start, it gathered steam steadily, so that nothing — not even the interruption of the award presentation before her three encores (the aria “O mio babbino caro” from Puccini’s “Gianni Schicchi,” Strauss’s “Zueignung” and “Marietta’s Lied” from Korngold’s “Die Tote Stadt”) — could impede its momentum. Sumptuous singing — call it luscious, if you like, a word Fleming threw out to describe some of her repertoire — was the order of the day, in selections that ranged from pieces that were old friends, like the songs from Brad Mehldau’s “Book of Hours: Love Poems to God,” composed for her; to new ones, like the three songs of her R. Strauss set, which she was adding to her copious Strauss store; and to obscure arias from even more obscure operas, like “Ier dalla fabbrica a Triana,” from Riccardo Zandonai’s “Conchita.”

But though Fleming was at ease with the jazzy, cabaret-like inflections of the Mehldau, the songs, hers though they may be, were perhaps not the most felicitous way to begin the recital. They made a difficult entry for listeners. The lights were too dim to read the Rilke poems, her diction was not quite crisp enough to distinguish the words, and so one was left with beautiful, but unmoored, vocal effects above all else. Things got better after that. Fleming’s Schoenberg selection, “Jane Grey,” took on spectral colors that matched Holl’s playing — he was a marvel throughout the recital, restrained, elegant, understated in the best of ways. And her Strauss songs — “Winterliebe,” the murmuring, ever-climbing “Traum durch die Dammerung” and the oceanic “Gesang der Apollopriesterin” — were beautifully rendered.

Still, for color, character and variety, it was the program’s second half that was the true charm — lush Korngold songs followed by the cooler French loveliness of Duparc and then by Fleming’s characterful realizations of “La Boheme” arias by both Puccini and Leoncavallo. Fleming clearly had fun with the final aria of the formal program, from Zandonai’s “Conchita.” “Carmen on steroids,” she called the opera, and she made this listener, at least, want to hear more.



Tue, Jan 18, 2011 : 6:09 p.m.

Ms. Fleming gave a talk to the students of the UM School of Music this last Saturday and I was lucky enough to attend. She was very down-to-earth, practical, and funny. She mentioned in multiple ways how she views her job as a real privilege, and that she gives her audiences 120%. After seeing her a couple of times in live performance, I can certainly vouch for that! She told us that she is still very much a work in progress - that she spent an hour and a half on Friday just fixing one note in her voice that felt awkward. It's certain that this is an artist who carefully plans every detail, from the comments she makes to the way she'll sing into her passaggio. What a graceful and generous thing, for an opera singer of her stature to be so very considerate at every juncture in her profession. I got the sense from her talking with us that she still considers herself a student who is still learning a lot. She talked about her accomplishments in a sequential kind of way, as though her path has unfolded by itself and she's been along for the ride. She was very unassuming, and very funny. She told us that when she met with Leontyne Price for private mentoring, Ms. Price would pound the table and shout, "I don't want to hear that from you, Number One!!" What a thrill to welcome Ms. Fleming back to Ann Arbor -- and to sense that the sold-out audience at Hill was being held right in the palm of her hand.


Mon, Jan 17, 2011 : 4:53 p.m.

I loved yesterday's concert, but share the frustration of sitting near someone who is noisy. At another concert at Hill, I sat in front of a guy who coughed non-stop. I asked an usher for a seating change during intermission and was able to enjoy the second half. Yesterday was amazing and I enjoyed it from start to finish. What a voice, and what stage presence! It was one of the best concerts I've ever attended. I agree that the first three songs were less accessible than the rest of the program, but I am glad that Renee Fleming is an advocate for young composers who are exploring new forms.

Susan Isaacs Nisbett

Mon, Jan 17, 2011 : 12:14 p.m.

So sorry you had this happen! I've sat next to people humming Swan Lake at the ballet, singing along with their favorite arias at the opera, and texting as they sat in $250 seats at the Met! I am glad you were still able to leave with a song in your heart.

sun runner

Mon, Jan 17, 2011 : 8:49 a.m.

I paid $65 for a single ticket in the main floor front-and-center section (my biggest UMS extravagance of the season, and one I have been eagerly anticipating since the season was announced last June) only to have the obnoxious women next to me eat something small and snacky out of a crinkly, noisy cellophane wrapper for the entire second half of the performance. I was beyond irritated but kept my cool and held my tongue because I was there to experience Renee Fleming, so I concentrated as best I could on her singing. I agree that the second half of the program was superior to the first, and included one of the pieces in my own repertoire ("O mio babbino caro"). The Korngold encore piece brought me to tears, and I was so worked up afterward that I sang all the way home-- Renee's Mozart arias CD, of course. This was the third time I have seen Ms. Fleming at Hill Auditorium and by far the best. (noisy wrapper lady notwithstanding...are they going to have to request that people refrain from eating during performances in addition to shutting off cell phones?)