Anticipation is a funny thing. It can create a range of emotions associated with an event, and in the case of this concert, I certainly had expectations. Yet the reality of live performance, particularly in the case of classical music, can cause unexpected results. That’s what happened Tuesday at the Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall in Costa Mesa. Dubbed, “An Evening with Renée Fleming”, the Pacific Symphony opened their season with one of the biggest stars of classical music. The marquee piece on the program was Richard Strauss’ Four Last Songs. One of my favorite pieces, I expected this to be the highlight of the evening. Who would expect that Ms Fleming’s foray into the glory years of American musical theater would prove to be the most memorable part of the program?

Renée Fleming and Carl St Clair © Nick Koon
Renée Fleming and Carl St Clair
© Nick Koon

Occasionally, crossover sets such as these can be less than satisfying, but after a thrilling reading of Leonard Bernstein’s overture to Candide by Carl St Clair and the Pacific Symphony (their other offerings included Glinka and Mozart overtures), Fleming returned to the stage to perform selections from Rodgers’ and Hammerstein’s Broadway hit The King and I. It was authentic music-making, facilitated by the soprano’s incomparably rich voice. It was also endearingly joyful as Fleming admitted that she couldn’t whistle and invited the audience to assist her on “I Whistle a Happy Tune”. Yet the key to this performance was its sincerity. 

Fleming gave the songs gravitas and didn’t treat them as frivolous showtunes. Certainly, there was a musical theater styling in her singing, yet Fleming avoided going too far. Her rendition of “Something Wonderful”, a deep and thoughtful song, was haunting in its intimacy. The set concluded with an athletic “Shall We Dance?” which Fleming capped off with a thrilling high note, to the delight of the crowded auditorium. It was a surprising, convincing turn by Ms Fleming who showed off her versatility.

How strange it was then that, in the first half of the program, a piece for which Ms Fleming is renowned, came across as wanting. Strauss, whom the soprano names as one of her desert island composers, and Fleming are almost synonymous and the soprano claims that the Four Last Songs is her most performed piece. One would expect this performance would seem to be a sure thing. But the orchestra sounded hurried and insensitive. The band filled the stage and overwhelmed the hall as well as Ms Fleming, who was often drowned out in her mid and low registers, where much of the meat of this music lies. Mr St Clair was attentive to Ms Fleming, but this was not enough.

Carl St Clair and Renée Fleming © Nick Koon
Carl St Clair and Renée Fleming
© Nick Koon
Ms Fleming’s reading was indeed captivating, gracious and wholly focussed. This is music, and more importantly text, of which she has a unique mastery. Yet, there was an inescapable vocal struggle, due in no small part to the balance and acoustics. Whole syllables were often swallowed up by the large violin sections and Ms Fleming’s unmistakably long phrases could sound disjointed, resulting in a less than clear musical landscape in each song. 

Of course, there were sublime moments – with a voice like Ms Fleming's, there always are. When soaring towards the top of the staff and beyond, her sound blossomed into the hall. The glorious ascending line of “Flügen schweben” in the third song “Beim Schlafengehen” still seems an uncanny fit for Ms Fleming’s vocal hue. And the final notes of “Im Abendrot” were served with a chilling directness, almost straight-toned, keeping the audience in complete captivity. 

Ms Fleming also shared a set of Italian songs (thankfully with reduced orchestra) that included a ravishing performance of Donaudy’s “O del mio amato ben,” featuring beautifully spun phrases filled with longing. She continued to delight in “Aprile” and “Mattinata” with interpolated high notes. She very effectively used a microphone for the Rodgers and Hammerstein set as well as delighting the audience with background on the music. The balance problems of the Strauss disappeared.

The thrilling encores, “Summertime” (as jazzy as it was classically refined) from Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess, and “I Could Have Danced All Night” (as infectious as it was convincing) from Lerner and Lowe’s My Fair Lady, were topped only by an impossibly sustained “O mio babbino caro” from Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi. Taken as a whole, it was an impressive and generous evening of music making. That the program ended on a high note, so to speak, is a credit to Ms Fleming’s pervasive musical acumen and versatility, not to mention her unmistakable treasure of a voice. 

****1