|Photo credit: Decca/Andrew Eccles|
A standing room only at the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall greeted superstar soprano Renée Fleming at the Oregon Symphony’s gala concert on Saturday night (September 10) with cheers and enthusiastic applause. The “people’s diva” graced the stage - looking smashing in elegant dresses – yet conveyed a down-home familiarity when she talked about the music. Fleming’s remarkably rich and expressive voice enhanced each selection on a program that traveled from heavier faire of Richard Strauss’s “Four Last Songs” to lighter pieces from Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “The King and I.” Each set of works was framed by a number that deftly showed off the orchestra under its music director, Carlos Kalmar.
Fleming gave a sensitive performance of Strauss’s “Four Last Songs.” Now and then it was a bit too sensitive because her voice got lost in the wash of orchestra sound. Still, her radiant singing and impeccable diction plumbed the depths of Strauss’s masterpiece, including the lowest notes which were firmly in the mezzo range. With “Spring,” Fleming evoked a renewed hopefulness, tickling the notes while singing the words “du lockst mich zart” (“you entice me tenderly”). She imbued “September” with a sense of one who has acknowledged that time is drifting beyond her grasp. “Going to sleep” continued the wistful enchantment with long, lush phrases and a lovely solo by concertmaster Sarah Kwak. Fleming then guided the audience to the great beyond with a beguilingly restful “At sunset,” which featured exceptional birdlike playing from the flutes and piccolos.
In the second half of the concert, it was much easier to hear Fleming’s remarkable voice, because she sang several French arias that had a soft, light orchestration. Her singing of “C’est Thaïs, L’idole fragile” from Jules Massenet’s opera “Thaïs” had a beguilingly liquid tone. Her performance of “Allons! Adieu notre petite table” from Massenet’s “Manon” pleaded and trembled with a soul-searching quality. With Camille Saint-Saëns “La Soirée en mer,” Fleming elicited the waves of the ocean – wonderfully aided by the strings and harp of the orchestra. She topped off the French set with a coquettish rendition of Oscar Strauss’s “Je t’aime quand même.”
Using the microphone, Fleming sang three selections from “The King and I,” crowdsourcing from the audience to fill in the whistling part of “I Whistle a Happy Tune,” because – as she readily admitted – she can’t whistle. She followed that with radiant singing of “Something Wonderful” and a carefree “Shall We Dance?”
Ecstatic applause from the audience gave way to a few encores numbers, starting with a heartstopping signature performance of “O mio babbino caro” from Puccini’s “Gianni Schicchi,” a sing-along version of “I Could Have Danced All Night” from “My Fair Lady,” and a poignant rendition of Lenard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.” Finally, the Fleming and the orchestra sang an entertaining arrangement of Happy Birthday by local composer Dave Miller.
The non-vocal selections included the dramatic Overture to Carl Maria Von Weber’s “Der Freischütz,” Emmaneul Chabrier’s “Joyeuse Marche,” and the sweeping “Carousel Waltz” from Richard Rodgers’s “Carousel.” The “Joyeuse Marche” especially crackled with laughing woodwinds and extreme fortes and pianissimos. Overall, the gala kicked off the orchestra’s season in a marvelous way, and audience members could go home and tell their friends and family that they had sung with Renée Fleming.