Costars, sentiment reign in Lyric Opera’s hodgepodge Fleming tribute

Sun Mar 24, 2019 at 1:28 pm

By John von Rhein

Renée Fleming and colleagues performed in a concert marking her 25th anniversary at Lyric Opera Saturday night. Photo: Todd Rosenberg

Can it really be 25 years ago this season that Renée Fleming sang her first performance at Lyric Opera of Chicago?

The much-loved soprano has done so much for the company, both onstage and off, establishing herself as a valuable force for enlarging Lyric’s civic footprint, a tireless advocate for arts education in the public schools, and a mentor to countless young singers, as to produce a record of achievement unique among artists of her or any other generation.

Indeed, from opera to Broadway to jazz to film soundtracks, America’s diva truly has “done it all”—as noted by actor and musician Tituss Burgess, the breezy host of Saturday night’s Lyric concert and gala honoring Fleming on her 25 years of service to the company.

Five of Fleming’s colleagues—soprano Sondra Radvanovsky, tenor Lawrence Brownlee, baritone Quinn Kelsey, bass-baritone Christian Van Horn and bass Eric Owens—shared the stage with the glamorous guest of honor, along with artists from the Ryan Opera Center (for which Fleming occupies a central advisory role) and the Lyric Opera Orchestra under Patrick Summers.

The grab-bag program, ranging from Mozart to Adam Guettel, proved no more coherent than most such affairs—bowing as much to general audience tastes as to Fleming’s own uncommon stylistic versatility and appetite for mixing things up in various performance settings. Now that she is retiring various signature roles from earlier in her career and focusing more on special projects, her efforts include spearheading Lyric Unlimited’s “Chicago Voices” initiative and branching out on Broadway (Nettie Fowler in Carousel last season). The perpetually-in-demand singer is nine years into her busy offstage role as Lyric’s first creative consultant.

Few card-carrying Lyric regulars will forget the thrilling impression Fleming made back in October 1993 when she made her house debut as the wronged title character in Carlisle Floyd’s American classic, Susannah. The creamy beauty of that voice, enfolding a remarkable artistic intelligence, held the audience spellbound. We all sensed she was headed for more important things, but few could have suspected what an iconic, internationally renowned artist she would soon become.

Looking as beautiful as ever in two stunning designer gowns—and sounding it too—Fleming limited herself to only five of the 16 vocal selections, allowing her friends and colleagues to do most of the heavy lifting. The overall performance level was high, but one had to wonder why an event honoring a great singer’s quarter-century of local musical achievement touched on so little of that achievement. Limited rehearsal time may have been a factor, but surely more thoughtful artistic planning could have been applied to the 2¼ hour (including intermission) smorgasbord.

Where, for instance, was any music by Richard Strauss, whose vocal works have driven Fleming’s career more than any other composer’s? Why was nothing included from Jimmy Lopez’s Bel Canto, whose 2015 Lyric world premiere Fleming shepherded from page to stage? (She’s been put in charge of Lyric’s next major commission, details of which have yet to be made public.) It would have been nice also to hear Fleming in partnership with more artists (Kelsey was the only colleague so favored).

The diva remains in remarkably fine vocal estate, the tone warm and velvety, the production steady, the phrasing true to the emotional states conveyed by the texts. Fleming has husbanded her vocal resources remarkably well over a career spanning more than 35 years – it’s hard to believe she turned 60 on Valentine’s Day last month.

Countess Almaviva’s “Porgi amor,” from Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro, affectingly sung, was a sentimental nod to an early signature role Fleming has long since dropped. Fleming never sang the titular heroine of Dvorak’s Rusalka in Chicago but at least she graced Saturday’s gala with her signature “Song to the Moon” from that opera, savoring languorous phrases with a melting legato.

As part of the American musical theater portion of Saturday’s concert, Fleming gave the crowd a scoop – that she will be portraying Margaret Johnson in a new production of Guettel’s The Light in the Piazza that is to open in Chicago in December, following performances marking her debut in London’s West End in September. Her lovely rendition of the song “Fable” whetted collective appetites for the entire show.

When it came to effortless technical display, no singer heard Saturday could match the clarion brilliance with which Brownlee nailed the nine high C’s in Tonio’s “Ah, mes amis,” from Donizetti’s The Daughter of the Regiment. Another highlight was the deeply sonorous majesty Owens brought to Procida’s patriotic aria “O tu, Palermo,” from Verdi’s I Vespri Sicliiani. What a pity no duets between these splendid singers and Fleming were included!

Not to be outdone, Van Horn summoned his most elegantly sinister tones to address arias of Mefistofele, in the eponymous Boito opera, and the magician Dapertutto, in Offenbach’s The Tales of Hoffmann.

It was a nice idea to have Radvanovsky sing Susannah’s “Ain’t it a pretty night!,” from the Floyd opera, thereby acknowledging the fact that both she and Fleming made their Lyric debuts in that work. Radvanovsky also favored the clap-happy crowd with a dramatically intense “Vissi d’arte,” from Puccini’s Tosca, an opera Fleming has prudently avoided thus far.

The role of Marguerite in Gounod’s Faust marked her second assumption at Lyric, in 1995-96, but all we got from that French Romantic staple on this occasion was a gravelly-toned account by Kelsey of Valentin’s aria “Avant de quitter ces lieux.”

Fleming has given Lyric audiences only three operatic roles since beginning her tenure as creative consultant in December 2010 – Blanche DuBois in a semi-staged version of the late Andre Previn’s A Streetcar Named Desire in 2012-2013, Countess Madeleine in Strauss’ Capriccio in 2014-15, and, most recently, Hanna Glawari in Lehar’s The Merry Widow in 2015-16.

Of those operas, only the Lehar was represented on Saturday – not the expected “Vilja” but the male chorus in praise of pretty women, heartily sung by seven members of the Ryan Center ensemble.

Male and female Ryan apprentices also were heard to fine effect in the rollicking finale from Verdi’s Falstaff and a selection from the 1938-39 Rodgers and Hart musical The Boys from Syracuse.

Spiffy in his black suit and silver shoes, Burgess accompanied himself at the piano in a terrific rendition of the Duke Ellington classic “In a Sentimental Mood.” He told the audience he was inspired to take up the song because of the enormous impact Fleming-the-jazz-singer had on him when he heard her in concert during his college years.

Summers’ tight beat and propulsive tempos, in orchestral selections by Mozart, Massenet and Richard Rodgers, helped speed gala patrons to their postconcert dinner.

Everybody joined on stage for the grand finale, a lush symphonic arrangement of “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” from Carousel, fervently led by the guest of honor.

There were no encores, only a solo bow from Fleming, who waved to the cheering assemblage, hand over heart.

“Twenty-five more years!” she declared to the fans.

Fingers crossed.

Posted in Performances

3 Responses to “Costars, sentiment reign in Lyric Opera’s hodgepodge Fleming tribute”

  1. Posted Mar 24, 2019 at 10:46 pm by Barbara Wright-Pryor

    Thank you, John von Rhein, for your concise, comprehensive review of the Renee Fleming and Friends Gala Concert. I regret that I was unable to be present!

  2. Posted Mar 25, 2019 at 12:05 pm by Chuck

    Nice to again read a review by John von Rhein, and hoping for more!

  3. Posted Mar 25, 2019 at 12:41 pm by Bobbie

    Agreed, JVR’s insightful and thoughtful comments are always appreciated. Great to hear his voice twice this month, with the excellent review of Lyric Unlimited’s American Dream last weekend.

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