A diva recital comes with big expectations – diva vocalism, diva artistry, diva gowns. At her Concertgebouw recital with pianist Hartmut Höll, soprano Renée Fleming fulfilled those expectations, but not the whole time. The gowns were definitely diva-grade. Fleming first appeared in a metallic silver Rubin Singer creation, then changed into an Oscar de la Renta, blue silk with a gold bodice. After three decades on the opera stage, her unmistakable voice is remarkably well-preserved, and the evening showcased her versatility, not only within the classical repertoire, but also in other genres. The programme comprised Lieder, opera, operetta, musicals and more, but not everything she sang played to her strengths.

Renée Fleming © Andrew Eccles | Decca
Renée Fleming
© Andrew Eccles | Decca

Fleming and Höll started with two groupings of German songs, one by Schubert and one by Brahms. Höll, a steady, confident accompanist, sounded rigid in the Schubert, which also suffered from Fleming’s unclear German diction. Performers sometimes need to warm up in situ, so let’s assume that both of them were stretching their muscles in An Silvia. The slower Im Abendrot was much more reposed, but Fleming’s rallentandos kept cutting the burbling flow in Die Forelle, with Höll scrambling to keep abreast. The Brahms set was more flattering to Fleming’s voice. Although some of her top notes were chalky, sometimes turning sharp, simple songs requiring beautiful sounds suited her best, such as the folk song Da unten im Tale. Meine Liebe ist grün gave us the first taste of Fleming in operatic mode, with fine playing by Höll. The Brahms grouping ended with a lovely rendition of his famous lullaby, closing with a heavenly diminuendo on the last word.

Letters from Georgia by Kevin Puts was next, a pair of songs that unfolded like a scene. Fleming picked up a microphone to explain that these settings of painter Georgia O’Keeffe’s letters, in which she raves about the beauty of New Mexico, were recently composed for her. The music is highly descriptive, the piano first rushing in with passionate chords, then settling into dreamy, reiterated figures. Puts fully exploits Fleming’s elastic upper voice and she was in her element, breathing life into every word.

Villa-Lobos’s Ária from Bachianas Brasileiras no. 5 was less successful. Fleming’s middle and upper registers were too different in colour for the upward curling melismas to be wholly satisfying. Also, a piano instead of cellos or a guitar did not sound quite right. A recording of her singing the Villa-Lobos, Fleming explained, was used in the film Bel Canto (2018), lip-synced by actress Julianne Moore. Fortunately, other Fleming film tracks include Von Flotow’s “’Tis the Last Rose of Summer” and Rusalka’s Song to the Moon by Dvořák, two opportunities for her to pour out some gorgeous singing before the break.

There was more opera in the second half­­­ – a heartfelt “Signore, ascolta” from Puccini’s Turandot and a light-hearted aria from Leoncavallo’s La bohème, “Musette svaria sulla bocca viva”. Two Italian songs took very different directions. Refice’s Ombra di nube suffered from faulty intonation and overwrought phrasing, but Tosti’s La serenata was utterly delightful. After inviting the audience to go and see her in London when she opens in the musicalThe Light in the Piazza, Fleming kept the microphone to sing a medley from Kander and Ebb’s The Visit and Unusual Way, a song by Maury Yeston. She sounded completely relaxed in this rep, her “musical” chest register warm and juicy. Höll was equally at ease on the piano, and both of them were clearly having a great time.

Even better were two operetta numbers by Franz Lehár, the bittersweet “Warum hast du mich wachgeküßt?” and the slightly giddy “Ich bin verliebt”. The evening should have ended with this strong musical-operetta set, but fans will have encores. Fleming obliged with a strong “Summertime” by Gershwin, followed by Puccini’s “O mio babbino caro”, which perhaps exemplified this variable recital. After some bafflingly truncated phrases, she finished the aria with an exquisitely spun diminuendo, a true diva moment.

***11