Like Spielberg with his shark, Enrique Mazzola and the London Philharmonic Orchestra held back their star turn until those champing at the bit could champ no more. A hallful of fans had come to hear Renée Fleming in two of her signature roles, but ahead of her on the Othello front came Dvořák’s overture of the same name, a musical thrill ride that works best if you don’t focus too heavily on the story within. Composed in 1891, it shares musical as well as Bardic territory with Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet of a quarter-century earlier and Mazzola turned on the Technicolor from the word go. The LPO’s lairy trombones had a field day.

Enrique Mazzola
© Jean-Baptiste Millot

So on to Verdi. And to Fleming? No, not quite yet. First, a vast LPO (100 players, including 60 strings) treated the ballet music from Otello to a luxury outing. Mazzola is a good friend of the LPO from their Glyndebourne collaborations and together they brought a tremendous sense of theatricality to this colourful interlude.

Eventually, at last, a door swung open and in shimmered the diva in a sumptuous gown of burnished gold. (I don’t normally comment on costume but, really, there was a collective gasp at this one.) Not quite Desdemona, one might argue, but very Renée. Her conductor-collaborator bent the LPO to his will in Verdi’s lingering introduction to the Willow Song, that miracle of his old age, before the soprano spun her first notes and coloured them in much the same shade as her frock: a blend of exquisite glitter and intriguing darker notes. Fleming’s vocal control is still a marvel, and her ability to refocus her instrument was masterly when it threatened, albeit only once or twice, to misbehave. Moreover, such fleeting moments of doubt lent a fitting vulnerability to a character whose self-possession is sorely challenged during the ensuing Ave Maria.

Renée Fleming
© Andrew Eccles | Decca

After the interval six section leaders and co-principals gave a ravishing account of the introductory sextet to Capriccio, the opera whose concluding scene would give the evening its climax. Strauss’ chamber prelude rather gives the lie to the drama’s core idea of an intellectual battle for supremacy between words and music, because the composer lays it out from the start in this impassioned instrumental billet doux.

Thence to the end, as Mazzola sidelined the opera’s exalted chit-chat and invited the LPO’s principal horn, John Ryan, to lead us through the ineffable Moonlight Music towards Capriccio’s great finale – and Strauss’s own farewell to opera – in which the Countess meditates on the artistic communication of love. Fleming’s assumption of this role over the years has become the linchpin for those who’ve followed her, and so it remained on this memorable evening. She moulded her complex vocal line into ecstatic phrases of heavenly contours so that even spectators with a fondness for premature clapping (of whom far too many denied earlier pieces their afterglow) remained silent at the end until a decent interval had elapsed. Their reward, and ours, was an immaculate encore rendition of Morgen!, a song whose four minutes of rapture encapsulate Strauss’ infatuation with the soprano voice.

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