“I missed dress applause!” Renée Fleming’s pronouncement upon walking on stage to reveal her shimmering red gown reflected the audience’s enthusiasm for many of the many rituals of live performance that we were beginning to re-familiarize ourselves with. It was my first live performance in some 16 months. How much did I miss concert-going? Enough to not be perturbed by the first or second cell phone outburst. Regardless, a recital by Renée Fleming is about as good a reason imaginable to take the plunge back.

Renée Fleming
© Andrew Eccles | Decca

The unmistakable sheen of her voice is still breathtaking; Fleming’s legato and endless line are still impressive. Thursday evening’s eclectic program contained some signature composers and pieces. In many ways, it was a safe program vocally, one that allowed the soprano to settle into the acoustic, but also the world of performing for a live audience again. With jovial applause breaking up the pieces within sets (a nice change from the staid formality of waiting), and spoken introductions to each set from the stage, it seemed a sort of easing back into concert-going. Among the myriad things that have become more clear about classical music in the past year are that performances need not be formal to be profound. The appreciation of music for music’s sake is not ruined by sheer happiness of enjoyment which breaks orthodoxy. But Fleming eased us back in to live performances with gorgeous vocalism.

This was most apparent in the repertoire you’d expect: Richard Strauss, Schubert, music with line and directness. Strauss’ Wiegenlied, sung with stunning tenderness, was among the highlights of the evening. Schubert’s Im Abendrot was another. The ease with which Fleming’s breath supports the legato is still a wonder to behold in such gems. The ease of transitioning between her registers as at the conclusion of the Schubert makes her range seem endless. But the exemplar of these qualities was unsurprisingly in the second half of the program in the Willow Song from Verdi’s Otello which she sang with abandon and occasional ferocity. It felt like she saved her full vocalism for that aria and Fleming’s endurance through that long scene showed it was a shrewd strategy. Her performance was masterful. While the dramatic elements of the first half program seemed to vary in strength as Fleming was getting warmed up, here she was at her peak.

Yet, there was a lacking security in one of Fleming’s other signature powers: her high notes. While the first half of the program was often devoid of them, they are famously exposed in Desdemona’s scene. To her credit, Fleming’s high notes could still outshine many others, but the ascending “Amen” of the scene lacked evenness. In other places, as in Strauss’ weighty Ruhe, meine Seele there was an almost Wagnerian quality to Fleming’s approach to the upper notes. In the end, while those money notes weren’t quite vintage, the consummate vocalism of Fleming’s performance made this concern secondary.

Inon Barnatan
© Marco Borggreve

One of the most rewarding displays of this artistry was in five songs from Maria Schneider’s Winter Morning Walks, in a premiere here of the piano arrangement. Schneider’s settings of Ted Kooser’s picturesque texts fit the middle of Fleming’s voice remarkably and the soprano’s ease of line makes the almost folkish melodic lines endearing. It was an enticing match and one hopes the rest of the songs will be completed in the near future. Inon Barnatan performed the arrangements with conviction and a keen naturalness the music, even when using some effective extended techniques. Barnatan’s contributions on the evening were always enthusiastic, virtuosic, and without artifice. He was an extremely supportive collaborator.

While the announced program concluded with Joni Mitchell and a song from the Broadway show, The Light in the Piazza, both of which were performed (unnecessarily) with amplification and a bit too much conviction, a single encore of “O mio babbino caro” gave the audience some of those cherished, breathtaking moments that have been so dearly missed this past year. 

The program had opened with an inspired paring of John Corigliano’s a cappella And the People Stayed Home (written to Kitty O’Meara’s text during the pandemic) and the majestic, “Dank sei dir, Herr” (once attributed to Handel). In the words of O’Meara, “the earth began to heal”. In the music world, Fleming’s voice is still a salve.