Four gowns, four languages. Powdered sateen under polished coiffures, American soprano Renée Fleming and Russian pianist Olga Kern presented a multi-lingual song recital at Carnegie Hall. The celebration of song cycles highlighted compositional and lyric graces of classical composers – Robert Schumann, Claude Debussy, and Sergei Rachmaninov – with tamed, polished beauties buffed lustrous. Under lesser talents, manicured beauty risks slipping into predictable banality and polite submission. But what the concert lacked in immediacy and intimacy was supplemented by Fleming’s métier – a charismatic diva with great American uplift.

The duo came armed with sartorial fireworks. Kern favored drop-waist, fishtail hem gowns in bold colors and beadwork while Fleming tapped earth and fire. Microphone in mannered hand, she introduced each set (and three encores) with anecdotes and quips in floor-sweeping folds. First, a black and tan ombré gown with lace overlay and sweetheart bodice. Later, a curve-hugging, red silk faille strapless bodice gown with a dramatic wrap. 

When not accompanying Fleming, Kern’s solos reinforced a key theme of the polished-to-perfection evening: first the beauty, then the words. Grand piano lid raised to top board and music shelf shelved, Kern spun Rachmaninov's Lilacs in the Russian composer's piano arrangement and Debussy's Feux d’artifices (Fireworks) from the composer’s second book of Préludes. Meticulous and watertight, Kern highlighted compositional beauty, but revealed little more than spectacular feats of frenetic, clean fingering.

With hard-earned diva credentials, Fleming brought great passion and romance to Rachmaninov's assorted Russian songs. Warm tonalities and a silky-drape transparency matched the Russian composer's lyric sweeps, and great brio buoyed In the silence of the secret night.

Despite its cultivation, less convincing was Schumann's Frauenliebe und –leben (A Woman's Love and Life), quilled in 1840, set to a 1830 poem cycle by Adelbert von Chamisso narrating a woman’s romantic relationship through courtship, marriage, widowing and remembrance.

In great synchronicity between pianist and soloist, confident Kern mapped reliable notes in beautiful washes and underpowered tones suitable to the petite cycle, piano lid lowered to half-mast. With clean, clear emission and tonal warmth, perfectly-poised Fleming sang with great weight and inflection. From the wedding day excitement of Helft mir, ihr Schwestern (Help Me, My Sisters) to the anguished grief of Nun hast du mir den ersten Schmerz getan (Now you have caused me the first pain). Despite Fleming's opening remarks that cheered the work's relevancy, it came across as a dusty time capsule sung by a beautifully-caged songbird.

Debussy’s Ariettes oubliées (Forgotten Songs), based on a poem by Paul Verlaine from 1885–1887, provided a great match to Fleming’s vocal verve and sauce. With nuance and poetry over a voice warmed to full radiance, she tapped dusky, sensual tones. Chevaux de bois was rendered in galloping, riotous tempi with a nice Andante.

After the subtlety of Debussy, Fleming's jazzy, bluesy transcriptions of works by Chicago songwriter and vocalist Patricia Barber rang sophomoric despite the artists’ deep care. Scream (Fleming had joked in the introduction that it was her “anthem for this election year”), inspired by the 2008 financial crash, painted clichéd vignettes of anguish souls such as a farmer during a drought and a disillusioned soldier. Works such as You Gotta Go Home – the tale of an exasperated woman telling her short-lived lover that the affair’s over – fared slightly better with Fleming's lighthearted insouciance.

On encores, Danny Boy brought full warmth over a smudged transcription, and “Shall We Dance?” from The King and I was accompanied by an endearing dance.

Despite her waning, traditional opera theater attendance, Fleming hasn’t been absent from the artistic side – she holds a creative consultancy and an artist-at-large role with the Lyric Opera of Chicago and The Kennedy Center, respectively. The third encore – “O mio babbino caro” from Puccini's Gianni Schicchi – was a fine reminder of her operatic stagecraft.