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Renée Fleming, soprano

  • Gerald Martin Moore, piano
  • At the Orpheum Theatre
  • in Vancouver on Tuesday

Renée Fleming is star enough to sing anything she wants, as her concert for the Vancouver Recital Series at the Orpheum Theatre showed on Tuesday. The leading American soprano - who has an iris and a dessert named after her, whose concert gowns have been specially designed by some of the top names in fashion (she wore a different one in each half of the concert), who has her own perfume and regularly hosts live opera broadcasts from the Metropolitan Opera - is probably as visible to the general public as an opera singer can be. Fleming's adventurous program, however, probably took some of her audience by surprise. The first half in particular, song cycles by 20th-century French composers Olivier Messiaen and Henri Dutilleux, showed Fleming in repertoire that an opera aficionado would hardly consider mainstream.

Messiaen's Poèmes pour Mi are early works, composed in 1936 for his wife, but the trademarks of his mature style are clearly present, especially in the piano's prismatic figuration and modal harmonies. Fleming's opulent, pearly voice, so grounded in its low range and rich in overtones, is extraordinarily smooth. Hers was an unusually voluptuous realization of Messiaen's very fluid melodies, which are so archetypically French, so subtly articulated. There's not a lot to criticize in Fleming's singing, but here it is: Her French is very open, so it lacks some of the colours that come from the closed French vowels. That seems a small thing, but it mediates against a quality that is almost medieval in Messiaen's vocal lines and that contributes to an intensity that is abstract or mystical rather than sensuous.

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The cycle of songs that Dutilleux, now 93, wrote for Fleming only a few years ago were a more natural fit. He sometimes plays the meticulous austerity in the piano writing against the sheer physical loveliness of Fleming's voice: He knew exactly the sound he was writing for.

Language quickens melody, and Fleming sings with a vibrant German. The five songs by Richard Strauss that opened the second half were the highlight of Fleming's program: fervent, varied in delivery, their words placed and dramatized, with soaring lines in which she could unleash the full glory of her sound. And while these songs are technically lieder, they are operatic in aspiration, and the piano swirls around the voice much as the orchestra does in his operas - indeed the accompaniment almost sounded like a piano reduction. Fleming's excellent pianist Gerald Martin Moore made this dense, virtuosic writing wonderfully symphonic: One could almost hear the horn entries and sparkling flutes.

Not even the final set, in which Fleming at last gave her audience the 19th-century Italian opera arias it was longing for, was standard repertoire. Her selections remained slightly off the track, from operas by Umberto Giordano, Riccardo Zandonai and Ruggero Leoncavallo (including arias from Leoncavallo's La Bohème - it was he who gave the libretto to Puccini, only to have the latter's opera displace his own). These were short pieces only, but the characterizations in each were vivid and distinct. For a moment I even forgot that human beings normally communicate by speech: That's how completely (and naturally) Fleming inhabits her voice, her artistry.

Special to The Globe and Mail

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