20 October 2005

Pleasing Beauty

Strauss DAPHNE, Carnegie Hall 15.10.2005; Bychkov (WDR Symphony); Fleming, Botha, Larsson, Sacca, Holl.

Her Daphne soars to my ears from above, surrounds me in soft foliage, or warm ocean water. Renée Fleming's sound appears to come from the back of her throat. It doesn't rush to pierce the air, or pinch or grab me by the neck, or pull my ears toward it. Instead it arrives from many sides, envelops my body like skin, lulls me under its fragrant spell, ever gently. Renée's basic voice does not have a well-defined spine, sometimes sounding fluffy and cottony, timid, disperse. I feel it like water; it's a unique sensation. Everyone else's voice has a spine, a kind of sonic line that bridges the soprano's throat and my ears, from which pretty ornaments and over-emoted emotions are hung. In the dark opera house, the spine reaches from afar and attacks my space, like someone calling your attention and addressing you directly. During much of the Daphne, as in all her appearances, Renée sounds like she's in an adjoining room, or in a bathroom shower, and all I sense is a rich echo of a singing voice. To end Daphne, Renée turns around, projects the vocalise out to the back of the Carnegie Hall stage and up to the lights: from my front-row dress circle seat, it all sounds like the same glamorous echo. With eyes closed, I don't think I could tell if she's facing me, facing away, or turned upside down. Strange. From a live stage, she flickers like a fine-tuned digital CD recording. When the music demands f or ff, a miracle ensues: the main volume knob is turned, and the high-tech Renée-surround-sound pumps in the requisite decibel seamlessly, without changing the basic aural polish. Her ff is terrifying in breadth, like a sudden flood or a tidal wave from an unexpected source, and if she decides to hold the note, her massive lungs back her up every time. Liquid, it does not falter. It is angry, vulnerable, silencing. Renée's is an exotic sound, a syrup of dark gold, sunlight from a setting sun, trace of glint on calm water. The technicolor mannerisms, the grand pliés and virtuosic inflections, the 'look-what-I-can-do' poses: matters for the (misguided) kunstqueen to bitch about (as Sieglinde does from time to time). But in my $48 seat, within the pleasures of this Strauss, I see that there is some art in pleasing beauty, unblushing, the sort of image whose essence can't be stained, even by Renée at her most overindulgent.