There are few classical artists with a higher profile among the general public than Renée Fleming, at least in the United States: her status as the diva of the day is evinced by appearances at the Super Bowl, the White House and on Sesame Street. Best known for her operatic performances, she has in recent years broadened her repertoire by, for instance, recording a range of indie rock song covers. Her Sydney recital on Sunday demonstrated some of this breadth by featuring song-cycles, operatic numbers, Lieder and show tunes. Not everything was equally impressive, but the best was exquisite indeed. Her introductions revealed her to be a confident speaker, with an easy humour and unfailing poise.

Renée Fleming © Andrew Eccles | Decca
Renée Fleming
© Andrew Eccles | Decca
Although past her half-century, Fleming’s voice retains much of its youthful qualities on the evidence of this performance. Her pitch was invariably true, and the tone was attractive and imaginatively varied. The artist she most resembles is the late Elisabeth Schwarzkopf: both have a warm, tightly controlled vibrato, which enables them to bring out expressive nuances through micro-inflections in volume and colour. The opening invocations of Ravel’s Shéhérezade, the calls of “Asie” were caressed into life. Her dynamic control was evinced by the thread of sound she used to breathe the word “sapin” (pine). Her flexible vocal instrument involving both a penetrative lower register and ringing top notes was shown to advantage in this repertoire. Her tone was not the loudest (there were apparently some audibility issues towards the back of the hall) and, perhaps wisely, she was accompanied by just a piano. The sacrifice of orchestral colours was to some extent mitigated by Richard Bado’s sensitive accompaniment.

The selections from Canteloube’s Chants d’Auvergnes were equally successful. The vocal lines were delivered with fewer nuances of phrasing than those in the Ravel songs, an appropriate response to the folk-like character of the music here. In the famous Baïlèro, Fleming’s pianissimo was particularly ravishing, while the more humorous Malurous qu’o uno fenno (Unhappy is the man who has a wife) was given a characterful delivery, all sparkling eyes and a deliberate screech to the final high note. The last song, Brezairola (Lullaby) showed again the variety with which she shaped sounds within the softer end of the spectrum. The French-language first half ended with the Jewel Song from Faust, which marked a falling off from the level she achieved previously. Fleming is normally a gifted actor, but on this occasion she failed to capture the naiveté of the ingénue Marguerite, and the passage-work didn’t sparkle.

Fleming is particularly known for her portrayal of Richard Strauss’s heroines, among them the Marschallin from Der Rosenkavalier. One problem with excerpting this for concert performance is that the only section of the opera in which this character sings uninterruptedly by herself is at the end of Act I, hardly the most attractive section. The Countess’ final scene from Capriccio might have been a better Straussian option, one which she has chosen on other occasions. Nevertheless, the Marschallin’s meditation on ageing was delivered sensitively, and was followed with a particularly dramatic rendition of one of Strauss’s best-loved Lieder, Zueignung (Dedication).

Three Italian songs followed, the first an intense excerpt from Mascagni’s L’amico Fritz. Tosti’s Aprile seemed better suited to her voice type, although even here the optimism of the song text about the coming of spring and love was overlaid in her performance with a sort of autumnal wistfulness. Puccini’s overly popular “O mio babbino caro” was deftly delivered, with a particularly gorgeous ending.

The final block of songs from Rogers and Hammerstein’s The King and I marked Fleming’s venture outside the classical and operatic world. She clearly was having fun in “Whistle a happy tune” (with audience-participation in the whistling sections positively encouraged), and she brought out the nostalgic melancholy of “Hello, young lovers” beautifully. Nonetheless, as a group these were the least convincingly rendered items on the programme.

The first encore, Gershwin’s Summertime, was delivered with stylistic panache, including expressive pitch bends and quasi-improvisatory elaborations on the famous melody. A shouted audience request for the Song to the Moon from Rusalka, one of Fleming’s war-horses, was complied with for her second and final encore. Dvořák’s famous melody was delivered with tenderness, the logjam of Czech consonants no bar to her soaring tone. The absolute stillness of the hall was the greatest tribute to Fleming’s artistry. The recital may not have had the electric quality that renders an event unforgettable, but nonetheless it offered an opportunity to hear top-flight vocal musicianship.