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Renée Fleming recital soars with opera, flops with pop

Renée Fleming Toronto Symphony Orchestra Roy Thomson Hall in Toronto on Wednesday

It's always interesting to see what musicians do when they become successful enough to have carte blanche in everything. Vladimir Horowitz would only perform at 4 p.m. on Sundays; Glenn Gould ignored large chunks of "standard" repertoire in favour of oddities by Richard Strauss and Paul Hindemith; and Axl Rose spent 13 years and untold millions recording Chinese Democracy.

Soprano Renée Fleming is one of the great opera performers of our time. Her lustrous voice and powerfully sensitive style often make me think of Rossini's words about the kind of singing "you feel in your soul." She's a terrific singer-actor too, certainly one of the best dramatic talents I've seen on an opera stage. She has it all, and a career to match.

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Her latest big exercise of superstar carte blanche came last spring in a recording called Dark Hope, of songs by Arcade Fire, Leonard Cohen, Jefferson Airplane and other pop and rock musicians. She performed some of those tunes during a generous and peculiar concert on Wednesday with Peter Oundjian and the Toronto Symphony Orchestra.

Peculiar, in that it was structured like a vocal recital, but with orchestra. Fleming presented four distinct sets of material – French arias, German lieder, Italian arias and her pop discoveries – punctuated by four whiz-bang opera overtures.

She began with a pair of arias by Massenet (from Thais) and Gounod ( Faust), both of them marked by gorgeous delivery and sometimes stunning attention to detail. She gave Thais's first appeal to Venus to keep her beautiful "forever" (in Dis moi que je suis belle) a frisson of anxiety that vividly conveyed this suave aria's neurotic subject. Her waltz rhythm in Gounod's Jewel Song had a wonderful freedom that made the orchestra sound stiff – a pity, after Oundjian's deft accompaniment in the Massenet.

Three songs from Mahler's Ruckert-Lieder again showed Fleming's mastery of mood and phrasing – a single line in the first quatrain of Ich atmet' einen linden Duft was, I would say, worth the price of admission. She was fresh and playful in Blicke mir nicht in die Lieder! and conjured an almost mystical tone in the final lines of Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen, which was beautifully completed by the TSO strings and English horn player Cary Ebli.

Then came the pop songs, and a drop in register, to something close to Fleming's speaking range, which is lower than you might expect. She has sung and recorded jazz standards this way, and has done them very well, aided by her jazz background (she sang in clubs as a student) and great sense of rhythm. I'm sorry to say that her pop selections were a nearly complete flop. I've heard more distinctive and meaningful singing from little-known performers in bars around Toronto. The nadir came in Leonard Cohen's Hallelujah, an overperformed song in a stodgy arrangement (the worst of a lame group), during which Fleming slipped into protective sotto voce every time the song ventured up to what should have been its peak moments. I don't think this material is beneath her, she's just the wrong singer to do it.

It was a relief to get back to opera, where she is the right singer, and how. The last phrase of Mimi's Donde lieta usci al tuo grido d'amore (from Puccini's La Bohème) opened a brand new window onto this familiar aria, and her excerpts from seldom-heard operas by Leoncavallo ( La Bohème) and Zandonai ( Conchita) made me want to see her bring these roles fully to life on stage – especially Conchita, a real fire-cracker part. Fleming closed the show with three Christmas songs, including a florid sing-along version of Joy to the World.

The TSO played most of this material quite well, though it was about 20 per cent too loud throughout. Thomson Hall is not a great venue for solo voices, and the orchestra was playing material usually heard from a partially covered hole in the floor. The TSO's fine horn section, in particular, would have been finer still if we had heard less of them. I also think the big-shouldered overtures (to Glinka's Ruslan and Lyudmila, Wagner's Die Meistersinger, Bernstein's Candide and Verdi's La Forza del Destino) should have been shelved in favour of music closer to the scale and feeling of Fleming's recital-like program. It made no sense to preface the delicate Ruckert-Lieder with a hunk of orchestral red meat like the Die Meistersinger prelude.

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