Intent to acknowledge the profound disappointment spreading across the city and the land, the New York Times saw it fit to insert an article into the record regarding diva Renee Fleming and the Norma that is not to be. The Zurich and Tanglewood engagements aside, a news report of Fleming backing out of a "scheduled" new Robert Wilson production of Norma at the Met in the 2011-12 season is remarkable because, well, it's four goddamn seasons away, and according to Peter Gelb "was never formally scheduled" anyway. But it's big news nonetheless: because the Fleming Norma would have been the summit of an imposing career, backing out of it is, in itself, a peculiar milestone. Such a decisive act underlines the exceptional challenge of the role, made more severe by the current crop of singers at the Met battling it out with Bellini. (Did anyone else catch the Marina Mescheriakova interstate pileup on Sirius last night?)
The paradox invading Sieglinde's thoughts these days is that Renee Fleming currently has command of the technical elements necessary to pull it off. Mysteriously, her "spokeswoman" Mary Lou Falcone (hey, I want a "spokeswoman" too!) has indicated that "Ms. Fleming would not be interviewed about the decision." (Wow, have you ever heard of such a thing? Not since Dick Cheney...) Falcone, however, provided a glimpse into the diva's private thoughts:
Thus Fleming feels that while she can sing it (well), she won't be able to cover the dramatic range of the role to her absolute satisfaction. As a friend sees it, Renee is just too "nice" to be angry and fierce, or to be feared or revered as a priestess. Moreover, some have brought up the incongruence between her vocal size and the Met's space, becoming a factor when exhaustion kicks in around the middle of Act II, when the Norma's dynamics is harshly tested. Is Renee just too "nice" for Norma? Is her lyric voice just too small for prolonged exposure at the Met?“She came to the conclusion it was not something she wanted to live with. It was just the overall feeling. It’s one thing to sing it. It’s another thing to bring the drama to it. At the end of the day, the decision was: ‘This is just not for me. There’s a lot of other repertoire to do.’”
Fleming probably can't do "angry" convincingly, but she does "desperate" and other dark sentiments quite well. Furthermore, her status as the reigning Met diva automatically endows her with a metaphysical aura that Maria Guleghina and Hasmik Papian, current exponents of the role in New York, can only dream of. An authentic star, with little need for the spotlight. But if she were to actually do it onstage, in a helpful production and under a nurturing conductor, I think she would imbue "anger" or any pushed emotion into the character the traditional way: that is, via the forgotten custom of singing it as written, actually maintaining fidelity to the music's original intentions. She can do the fioriture and the legato while skipping and chewing gum at the same time. And she may not look as draconian as Guleghina in appearing to trample anyone in her way (after biting their heads off first), but Fleming's sound, when pushed and in forte, can be quite formidable and otherworldly. Beautiful and imposing at once. The genius of Callas and Caballe--to address the range of emotion bounding Norma, but still hold true to the purest bel canto traditions--is within Fleming's mightiest grasp.
So then what is Renee Fleming really afraid of? This is my question. Is there something we don't know about her current vocal condition? (But if Armida is still on the horizon, it can't possibly be a crisis in technique.) Or is Renee Fleming just afraid of Failure? To an artist of such stature, but who has been very measured and relatively sheltered thus far, any outing that is less than spectacular morphs, in her mind and in every critical eye, into a cataclysmic collapse, rightly or not. More so in the hallowed realm of Norma, a work revered by opera fans and mortally feared by conscientious sopranos. But it is by these coordinates that Fleming should reverse her decision. The rare moment coalesces when guts and will are truly tried, when the sweetest fruits appear in the mystical tree, and when, in the end, our legends are rewritten.
Previously: No Norma, Latest word from Irminsul, Missing Norma