Renée Fleming doesn’t just walk onto a stage: she appears. Floating in from the wings wearing by far the classiest frock I’ve seen all festival, she carried the air of a diva at every movement. Even her pianist, Hartmut Höll, was dressed in a full dinner suit and white bow tie, and I’m pretty sure that’s the first time I’ve ever witnessed a recital pianist dressed that way in all my years of festival-going!

Renée Fleming
© Matt Beech

This only confirmed my suspicion that we were in for a morning of full-blown, high class divadom, so I was pleasantly surprised to see how keen Fleming was to bring the whole event down to earth. In between each sequence of songs, she chatted to the audience in a most un-diva-like way, even making fun of her dress, and modestly singling out Höll for special praise. The main surprise which I took away from this concert wasn’t how distant but how likeable I found her.

She told us how she put this programme together as a reflection of the eighteen months of the pandemic, beginning with a hymn of thanks and moving through various meditations on love, and on nature, which has become so important to all of us since lockdown. So much of this programme was designed to play to her strengths, the rich creaminess of the voice coming through in a vulnerable portrayal of Handel’s Cleopatra (in Alexander Balus) and in her Strauss songs. Each sequence seemed designed to explore different emotional sides, the skittishness of Strauss’s Muttertändelei contrasting the rapturous nature-worship of Waldseligkeit, or the distress of Grieg’s Zur Rosenzeit balancing the loving fulfilment of Ein Traum.

She was singing her Fauré sequence for the first time, four mélodies that demonstrated how well this composer’s refined delicacy suits her voice, particularly in the poignant Les Berceaux which sings of the mothers who lose their husbands to voyages on the sea. It’s a shame, however, that she was so tied to her score for these, because it robbed her of a good deal of her power to communicate, one of her key strengths.

Hartmut Höll and Renée Fleming
© Matt Beech

This programme also stewarded her voice very well. The Fauré songs, for example, stuck more towards the middle of the voice so that she only rarely had to crest up to the top. She still has those high notes, though they’re no longer perhaps as easy as they were: she hits them, but doesn’t rest or luxuriate in them as she once did. In both the Grieg and Strauss sequences, for example, the burgeoning sense of ecstasy came more from Höll’s piano than Fleming’s sometimes choppy sense of line, and there was a very slight touch of greying to the exposed long top notes of Puccini’s “O mio babbino caro”, such as an encore.

However, there is still pearly luxury aplenty, and her surprising choice of Joni Mitchell’s Both Sides Now revealed how beautiful the bottom of her voice has become. It was here, too, that she was at her most directly communicative: there was no need for a score to a song she has known since her youth and in this, more than in anything else on the programme, she had the audience eating out of the palm of her hand.