One would think that either Renée Fleming or Susan Graham alone would be reason enough to sell out a large venue such as Disney Hall. But everything is bigger in Hollywood, and the LA Phil brought both artists together for a one-night recital of French art song. But even that wasn’t enough. This was not an ordinary recital with neatly arranged sets of the typical repertoire finished off with a few predictable encores, concluded in two hours’ time. No, this was a thoughtful survey of French mélodies and their English-speaking muses, with slideshows, anecdotes, and stories.

Susan Graham © Dario Acosta; Renée Fleming © Jonathan Tichler
Susan Graham
© Dario Acosta; Renée Fleming © Jonathan Tichler

Leave it to Fleming and Graham, two singers inextricably linked from the beginning of their careers, to demystify this genre and bring it to an enthusiastic audience. Since both winning the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions in 1988, they have come to the forefront of the United States’ classical music consciousness, becoming two of its most effective ambassadors. Their down-to-earth ease combined with first-class musicianship is a potent combination. Disney Hall, accented with a hanging chandelier low over the stage and antique brass music stands for the singers onstage, was transformed into a Belle Époque salon. Glamorous photos of past divas such as Mary Garden and Sibyl Sanderson flashed across the projector screen above the stage, also used to display the lyric translations. Fleming and Graham were generous with their introductions of the composers and songs, following a clever and entertaining script that detailed the often scandalous circumstances of the music’s genesis.

Still, it is all about the singers, and from the first notes it was hard to imagine two more ideal voices singing today. Fleming and Graham’s extensive collaborative history was evident throughout the first two sets of duets. Whether spinning out the languid phrases of Fauré in “Pleurs d’or” or navigating the dazzling melismas of Saint-Saëns in “El desdichado”, the two divas were at evident ease. Fleming’s luscious soprano, combined with Graham’s focused mezzo-soprano sound, was a feast for the ears. While being sensitive to each other in balance and color, they made for a somewhat understated ensemble, perfectly appropriate to the genre. This was most effective in the Fauré set which included his famous “Pavane”, musically overshadowed by his beautiful “Puisqu’ici-bas toute âme” and fiery “Tarantelle”.

For her part, Ms Fleming delighted the audience with a devastating “Beau soir” by Debussy, paired with the composer’s bouncy “Mandoline”, executed with with crispness. The voice is still a marvel. Her effortless delivery easily filled the hall and drew the listener in to a complex color of sound that is distinct and majestic. Her artistic ease with the delivery of these poems was clear, performing with an engaging face and gestures. Still, her vulnerability and sincerity in “Beau soir” was the most elegant delivery of her selections. Her rendition of Delibes’ feisty “Les filles de Cadix” drew enthusiastic delight from the audience.

Susan Graham’s artistry has often been overshadowed by the more glamorous Fleming, but her contribution to the evening, far from being a competition, was perfectly judged and delivered with stunning results. Graham’s warm color and clean lines supported effortless high pianissimos. Graham’s ease of diction and clarity of sound delivered Reynaldo Hahn’s haunting lines in “Infidélité” for moving effect. Her soaring phrases in “Le printemps” were clean and luxurious.

The evening concluded with both divas collaborating on four duets, the most poignant of which was Berlioz’s haunting “La mort d’Ophélie”. The final mourning phrases were perfectly in tune and sung with striking purity. André Messager’s “Blanche-Marie et Marie-Blanche”, from his opera Les p’tites Michu was a good-natured romp with a nod to a mock rivalry between the two singers. The final two were the ubiquitous crowd-pleasers, Offenbach’s “Barcarolle” and Delibes’ “Flower Duet”. In lesser hands, the gracefulness of these two pieces can be lost in translation, but on Saturday night, they were fresh delights, sung with incomparable beauty.

Bradley Moore performed yeoman’s work as the accompanist for all of the evening’s music, and contributed a melancholy yet not dour “Clair de lune”. He was a sensitive collaborator, never overpowering his singers, and played with a soft touch that saturated the hall.

In closing the evening, Ms Fleming acknowledged that this may be the first time that both women have performed on stage with both wearing dresses, nodding to their frequent collaborations with Ms Graham in pants roles. Their encores began with a delightful and youthful “Ah, guarda sorella”, from Mozart’s Così fan tutte. As if the evening couldn’t get more delightful, Ms Graham serenaded the audience with “La vie en rose”, while more than capably accompanying herself from the keyboard. It was breathtakingly gorgeous and one of the most memorable performances I have ever seen in a recital. After Fleming’s solo encore of Canteloube’s “Malurous qu’o uno fenno”, the two singers concluded with Humperdinck’s “Evening Prayer” from Hansel and Gretel. In total, it was a very generous offering of music. Ms Fleming and Ms Graham’s impeccable musicianship, incomparable voices, and, above all, commitment to their artistry resulted in one of the most enjoyable and unique recitals I have ever seen.