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A breath of fresh air

Roy Thomson Hall
10/30/2015 -  
Robert Schumann: Frauenliebe und -leben, Op. 42
Sergei Rachmaninoff: "O, dolgo budu ya", Op. 4, No. 3 – "Rechnaya lileya", Op. 8, No. 1 – "Ne poy, krasavitsa!" Op. 4, No. 4 – "Vesenniye vodï", Op. 14, No. 11
Richard Strauss: "Das Bächlein", Op. 88, No. 1 – "Ruhe, meine Seele!" Op. 27, No. 1 – "Allerseelen", Op. 10, No. 8
Joseph Canteloube: from Chants d’Auvergne: "Baïlèro", "Malurous qu’o uno fenno" & "Brezairola"
Patricia Barber: "Higher" – "Scream" – "Hunger" –"Morpheus" –"You Gotta go Home"

Renée Fleming (soprano), Gerald Martin Moore (piano)

G.M. Moore, R. Fleming (© Malcolm Cook/Courtesy of Roy Thomson Hall)

The program’s meatiest item came right at the start, with Schumann’s eight-song cycle ("Woman's life and loves")recounting a woman’s joy in love, marriage and motherhood - and then grief at widowhood in the final, bleak song. (Nobody but Schumann can turn bliss into anguish so convincingly.) This was very nicely done, if perhaps a bit too careful. The singer kept close watch on the nearby score.

The score was put aside for the four Rachmaninoff songs, each one vividly characterized by both singer and pianist, all ending with the grand finish in the final song, “Spring Waters”.

As with the Rachmaninoff numbers, the three Strauss songs were each given its distinctive due. ”Das Bächlien” (“The Little Brook”) is a bit too cute for my taste, but the contrasting ”Ruhe, meine Seele!” (“Rest, My Soul!”) was delivered as a serious dramatic scena, beautifully supported by Mr Moore, who delivered melting phrases in ”Allerseelen” (“All Souls’ Day”).

The three songs from Joseph Canteloube's collection were a true delight, the first two delivered with sparkle and bounce, the last one, a lullaby, delicately sustained.

This was just the second time Renée Fleming has performed the five songs by jazz composer Patricia Barber and she admitted that she is still finding her way with them. Two of them (“Hunger” and “Morpheus”) are from a cycle based on Ovid’s Metamorphoses, and she noted that “Scream” is a great title for a song in election year. They were given a very relaxed, natural delivery, bringing to the hall a touch of cabaret-scale.

There were three encores: ”Io son l’umile ancella” from Cilea’s Adriana Lecouvreur, “Shall we dance?” from Rodgers and Hammerstein’s The King and I, then “Marietta’s Lied” from Korngold’s Die tote Stadt. Throughout there was a lovely glow in the still-creamy voice, a few dry lower notes aside.

Gown report: Ms Fleming wore two, each credited in the program. First: a deep blue number by Angel Sanchez, then a silvery gown with billowing gold cape by Vivienne Westwood. (The audience was delighted.)

Audience report: The large (but not capacity) audience greeted her with cheers and then were quietly attentive within each section of the program – in other words, the nice old-fashioned rules about withholding applause were observed.

There was a valedictory air about the event. For one thing: will this mark a local farewell by a well-loved and highly-regarded singer? I note that Ms. Fleming has a stint soon in Chicago with The Merry Widow, but no other opera is on her calendar. Is she bowing out of opera at age 54? - the two operatic encores certainly show her to be in fine form, the voice steady, with well-supported high notes held to almost indecent length (hurray!). If she is saying farewell to opera, she is certainly going out on top. Of course many singers have a lengthy recital career post-opera.

I also note that the venue has no other vocal recital on its schedule. Roy Thomson Hall opened in 1982 as the performance space for the Toronto Symphony Orchestra. It also began presenting noted singers in recital, typically four per season, and over the decades the soloists presented makes for quite a distinguished list: Leontyne Price, Hermann Prey, Montserrat Caballé, Marilyn Horne, Jessye Norman, Bryn Terfel, Kiri Te Kanawa, Gwyneth Jones, Thomas Hampson, Arleen Auger, Angelika Kirchschlager, Ben Heppner, Susan Graham, Dawn Upshaw, David Daniels, Cecilia Bartoli, and, of course, Ms. Fleming. In recent years , though, the numbers have faltered, and for some engagements only the lower sections of the 2600-seat auditorium were offered for sale. We have to face the fact that song recitals feature intimate repertory and in recent years smaller venues (especially the 1100-seat Koerner Hall at the Royal Conservatory) have been used more, although even there solo recitals are not all that numerous. Two singers who used to perform at Roy Thomson Hall, Susan Graham and Dmitri Hvorostovsky, have recently sung at Koerner hall, and Bryn Terfel is due soon, as is a return by Hvorostovsky. Another singer whose big voice and expansive personality would suit Roy Thomson Hall is Sondra Radvanovsky who is soon to appear at Koerner Hall a second time. If this recital marks a last hurrah for solo recitals in this hall, it certainly was a joyous event.

Michael Johnson



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