Not so much a concert, almost a religious service – the faithful had come to worship at the altar of the voice beautiful. On a weekend when London was expecting to have solo singers at every classical venue (the others all cancelled) Renée Fleming at the Barbican was a predictable draw and her many followers had turned out in force.
Only a handful of singers can sell out a hall this size for a celebrity evening. Fleming is one of them and the form of her concerts on tour has become familiar: a stunning voice, operatic arias in various languages, and a smattering of orchestral numbers to give her a breather. The question is how far this adds up to a rewarding artistic experience.
On Saturday, any hopes in that direction were soon scuppered by the orchestra. Despite the efforts of the conductor, Andreas Delfs, the Royal Philharmonic Concert Orchestra’s playing was atrociously scrappy and out of tune. The interlude in the finale of Strauss’s Daphne, which should hymn the glory of nature with ecstatic bird song, sounded more like the squawking of the damned in a chicken factory.
Fleming did her best to sail on regardless, a seraphic smile never leaving her face. She was cautious in Mozart’s C Minor Mass, over-indulgent in Cilea’s Adriana Lecouvreur and “Vissi d’arte” from Puccini’s Tosca – has nobody told her to get a move on at the ends of arias? – and somewhat more animated in Verdi’s Il trovatore. On this evidence, her singing of the Italian repertoire is succumbing to her mannerisms with enervating results.
By contrast, her radiance in German opera remains untarnished. Two arias by Korngold, including a lovely encore from Die Kathrin, were beautifully done, the top notes as unstressed and free as ever. The voice loves these languorous, late romantic vocal lines that hang in the air, where the singer can take all the time she wants. At the end, the closing scene from Daphne was every bit the glorious apotheosis it was meant to be, at least on the part of the soprano.
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