23 September 2008

Renée Fleming's Really Huge Opening

Metropolitan Opera Opening Night Gala, starring Renée Fleming. Verdi LA TRAVIATA, Act II; Massenet MANON, Act III; Strauss CAPRICCIO, final scene; Fleming, Vargas, Hampson, c. Levine, c. Armiliato, c. Summers.

Five scenes of spectacular singing, despite bad hair. To begin: at Violetta and Alfredo's country house, Renée Fleming felt obliged to show off all her skill and sheer vocal beauty immediately, so she mostly wallowed in self-indulgent sighing and sliding and honey-on-caramel vocalization. No character development here: it's a show for the show. But we still gladly ate it up. The first surprise: last night's "Amami Alfredo" is her best yet. Levine stretched it out and modulated the dynamics to Wagnerian proportions. Renée responded accordingly, the voice cutting through the tremulous strings with a ravishing bloom. By Flora's party, she's back to form, distilling beauty and emotion into a more quiet vocalization. The magnificent Christian Lacroix for this scene was the sole couture winner of the evening.

At the Cours la Reine, Renée tried to channel Anna Netrebko, with little success. It's a brainless scene anyway, so she's entitled to appear brainless. The aria, however, was delivered with customary precision. At St. Sulpice, however, she pulled it back together, reminding me why she's a once-in-a-generation Manon. With a capable sparring partner in Ramon Vargas, Renée caressed Massenet's sensual tunes with uncommon style, so that it was easy to ignore the monstrous Karl Lagerfeld drapery and that hair. (Whoever formulated those wigs must really hate Renée's guts.) Anyway, if Vargas were a bit hunkier and a bit taller and a lot more handsome, he's be such the perfect leading man for Renée: with that sweet voice, and that voice alone, he deserved to open the Met season too. Bottom line: St. Sulpice remains among Renée's greatest creations.

The final scene of Capriccio was the highlight of the evening. Two things distracted a bit: again, the John Galliano frock, especially that awful coat, and again the hair; and Renée touching herself way too much. Granted, it's a monologue with significant orchestral interludes, so that the Gräfin, lost in thought, is left raw and exposed to inhabit the big mansion of a set. When Dame Kiri did Capriccio the last time she and it were on the Met stage (for a full opera, that is), she chose simply to stand in various places and look out to the invisible horizon in contemplative poses, and what little self-touching she did conveyed much more sensuality than Renée's completely tasteless stage direction. It may have been that Renée was compelled to physicalize what should have been obvious had the audience seen the entire opera. But even so, it was just too much. Honestly, I thought she was going to masturbate on stage.

But the soaring Strauss, and a voice that is just perfect for it, made up for all that silliness. Maestro Patrick Summers has complete rapport with Renée, pushing the orchestra to the hilt, and taking her up to the stratospheric fortes with such ease. At certain points of the monologue, I thought, wow, this girl could sing Salome's final scene. No, not the whole opera, just the final scene. In concert, a la Leontyne Price. Renée, when properly warmed up, has just the juice for these kinds of things: the combination of sweetness and soaring power, with an uncomplicated instinct for Strauss. This voice is just made for Strauss.