BWW Reviews: Renee Fleming and Susan Graham Delight Carnegie Hall, 1/27
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by Peter Danish
There are certain occasions when even the most jaded New York audience can just smile and say thank you. The duo recital by soprano Renee Fleming and mezzo-soprano Susan Graham Sunday night at Carnegie Hall was just such an occasion. Given that both divas have sold out Carnegie Hall as individual performers, the dual recital was something very special indeed. The performance, the next-to-last stop on a six-city tour, was pure joy from start to finish for audience and performers alike. In fact, the lively, playful banter from and between the two long-time friends and colleagues (they actually first met in 1988 when each won the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions) gave the entire evening the feel of a small cabaret show - for nearly 3,000 of their closest friends.
The performance featured the work of eight different composers from the belle époque of Paris and invited the audience on a light-hearted, but informative, tour of the art song literature of the era. This territory is not unfamiliar to either singer as both have received the "Chevalier de la Légion d'honneur" from the French government in recognition of their expertise in French repertoire, and both have numerous releases of French material in their catalogues. The ever-shrinking number of serious song recitals (especially French art songs) made the performance all the more precious. But to pull off such an evening, artists of the highest caliber, at the top of their game are a critical ingredient. Fleming and Graham were more than up to the task, performing with lush tone and unparalleled interpretive skills; showing that these crusty old French bon-bons deserve to have life breathed into them once again, especially the often overlooked and rarely performed French duet literature.
The evening was much more than a mere recital, it was a journey to another place and time, as the vast Stern Auditorium was transformed into an intimate Parisian salon from a century ago, and virtually every bon-bon served was more ravishing than the last. Of course, no evening of French art songs would be complete without equally magnificent designer gowns, neither Fleming nor Graham disappointed on that count; both looking gorgeous. While certainly glamorous, the cutting edge haute couture did look ever so slightly out of place in an evening that was otherwise decidedly "retro."
The evening began with a crusty old recording of the legendary Mary Garden, the original "Sarah Bernhardt of opera" and reigning diva of the belle époque, speaking about her trials and tribulations with French composers (she created the role of Melissande for Debussy and Cherubin for Massenet). She clearly set the tone and the context for the evening: frank and brash. In addition to Mary Garden, the great Sybil Sanderson was also alluded to, as Ms. Fleming made special note of just how many classic French opera roles were created by and especially for American divas.
The first half began with a number of duets by Saint Sans, each punctuated by a brief introduction. The informational tidbits felt stiff and a bit "rehearsed" compared to the casual and funny interplay between the singers and the relaxed and florid singing. The trio of Saint Sans works was followed by a series of lovely Faure melodies, including an exquisite reduction for soprano and mezzo of the choral version of the well-known "Pavane in F-sharp minor."
Pianist Bradley Moore had but one solo turn in the evening and he performed the lovely, if ubiquitous "Claire de Lune" of Debussy. To his credit he made the most of his spotlight number, taking a languid, luxurious pace and bringing a pleasantly understated feel to the often overplayed chestnut.
Part one ended with Fleming solo, performing pieces by Debussy and Delibes, including "Mandoline" and "Les filles de Cadiz" which were essayed serviceably if not memorably.
In the second half of the recital, the two divas really hit their stride, beginning with a stirring set of songs by Venezuelan-born, French-raised, Reynaldo Hahn. All of the selections were part of a sumptuous recital disc of Hahn songs which Graham released in 1998, and they are glorious. "Le rossignol des lilas" and "Infidélité" had virtually everyone in the theater holding their breath as Graham spun ravishing vocal lines that floated and disappeared into the air. Her beautifully nuanced and expressive realizations of these songs make one wonder why they are not performed far more often.
Fleming rejoinEd Graham for what was surely one of the evening's high points, Hector Berlioz's "La mort d'Ophélie," during which it became almost impossible to discern one voice from the other; such was the sublime blend of their harmony. The conclusion of the song, which seemed to gently disappear into infinity, left much of the audience speechless.
The evening's only selections from the French operatic repertory followed. After a program of largely unfamiliar melodies, it was clear that the more traditional show-stoppers would be warmly welcomed - and they were. The Barcarolle from Offenbach's "The Tales of Hoffmann" and the Flower Duet from Delibes' "Lakme" are now heard as often in TV commercials as they are in the opera house but they were both delivered with delicacy and a sense of joy that brought the house to its feet.
The encores began with a tip of the hat to Mozart as Sunday was his 256th birthday. The delightful "Ah guarda sorella" from Così fan Tutte showed that the veteran divas could still bring it with the best of them. Then Graham simply brought the house down, swaggering back to the stage solo with a cigarette dangling from her lip and then accompanying herself at the piano in a half-French/half-English rendition of Piaf's signature "La Vie en Rose."
While Fleming couldn't match Graham in the comedy department, she fared well with "Malurous qu'o uno fenno," one of Canteloube's "Songs of the Auvergne," which she explained to the audience meant: "Wretched is he who has a wife, wretched is he who has not. Happy is the woman who has the man she wants, happier still is the one who is single!"
So what do you close a marvelous evening of French melodies with? A German piece of course! To end the show, Fleming and Graham unpredictably chose the gorgeous "Evening Prayer" from Humperdinck's Hansel and Gretel. The audible sighs of delight and the number of handkerchiefs wiping away tears in the audience during the song proved that it was an inspired (if not particularly French) choice.
Let's hope that the two divas plan to video one of the performances from the tour for posterity and for the pleasure of future audiences. And if they ever decide to take us on another journey, to some other dim and distant time and place - don't miss it!
Photo by Richard Termine