As the summer in Amsterdam nears its end, so do the Robeco SummerNights at the Concertgebouw. This last week of what could be referred to as the “Dutch Proms” started with an eclectic program from Beethoven to Barber performed by the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra under the baton of its chief conductor Sakari Oramo. Soprano Renée Fleming shone in works by Richard Strauss and Barber.

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

With his hands constantly whirling in the air, Oramo looked as if he was trying to physically sculpt the sound from his orchestra, whose musicians played their hearts and souls out for him. The results were mixed at first, in a Beethoven Leonore Overture no. 3 that lacked clarity, but things got quickly better. Oramo’s communicative manner worked well in Schumann’s Symphony no. 3 in E flat major. The “Rhenish” Symphony was inspired by a trip Schumann and his wife Clara took through the Rhine Valley. As the orchestra meandered through its five movements, one could picture the changes in the mighty river’s course. The fourth movement Feierlich felt haunting and stagnant, the last one spirited and buoyant.

However, the majority of the public in the packed Concertgebouw would have been there to listen to star soprano Renée Fleming. She did not disappoint. There has been a lot of press coverage and aficionados’ talk about her announced retirement from the opera stage earlier this year. The vocal health of the American diva displayed during her performance on Monday night would suggest such a retirement is both regretful and premature: the timbre still has its trademark creamy quality, the gold at the top bears only the slightest of tarnish.

In Richard Strauss’ music, repertoire she is perhaps most associated with, her voice is nothing short of perfect. It is telling in a way that she would choose to sing the transformation scene from Daphne. This scene was one of Strauss’ personal favourites; he famously chose it above all others, to everyone’s surprise, when asked to play the piano by a camera crew visiting him in 1949 to film a documentary in honour of his 85th birthday. Ms Fleming recorded the scene under the baton of Sir Georg Solti in the mid 90s and performed the role on stage early this century. The opera is loosely based on the myth of Daphne and Apollo from Ovid’s Metamorphoses. The chaste nymph Daphne resists the god’s advances, and asks Zeus to be transformed into a laurel tree. Oramo led the orchestra with deliberate gestures in this most phantasmagorical of music, emphasizing the unceasingly spinning lines that evoke the growth of branches and leaves. Ms Fleming’s soprano soared above the orchestra’s sumptuous sound effortlessly, the long melismatic last phrases, as Daphne reaches her ecstatic union with nature, beautifully rendered.

The other highlight of the evening was undoubtedly Barber’s Knoxville: Summer of 1915, an intimate piece composed on a prose piece by James Agee, in which the narrator recalls his childhood memories of sitting on a porch with his family, in a summer evening in his hometown in Tennessee. Here again, the conductor proved expert in setting the scene, the sound of his orchestra, now in a reduced formation, reminiscent of the slow rocking of chairs on a veranda. Ever the storyteller, Ms Fleming gave a heartrending account, her timbre turning to burnished colours, full of longing and melancholy. One couldn’t have wished for a better suited performance on a warm late summer’s night.

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