Renée Fleming has been a superstar for so long that it is difficult to believe she is nearing the end of her career. Already, she has begun to retire certain roles from her operatic repertoire, transitioning to others that are somewhat less demanding. It is a fact of life that when a soprano voice is in its late 50s — Fleming will celebrate her 58th birthday this week — it is seldom, if ever, what it was at age 25, and in recent years Fleming has sometimes struggled to control intonation and sustain long lines that she used to toss off with ease; that said, under studio conditions, as on this new recording from Sweden, Fleming is still very much at her best, making this CD a welcome addition to her legacy.
Several weeks ago, my colleague Norman Lebrecht reviewed this same CD and found it wanting, to say the least. Norman was right on the money in stating that Fleming’s diction in Knoxville: Summer of 1915 leaves a lot to be desired; I also had difficulty making out the words. The voice, however, sounds great, and we are fortunate to have a Fleming version of this iconic American masterpiece, in which Samuel Barber sets to music the words of James Agree expressing what it felt like to be 6-years old in Knoxville, Tennessee in the summer of 1915; words about how life was so simple, so commonplace and about how comforting it was to be loved and cared for by one’s parents. And despite this idyllic picture, questions about life. What does it all mean? Who are we?
Great sopranos from Steber to Price to Battle, Hendricks, Upshaw and McNair have given us memorable versions of Knoxville: Summer of 1915. Fleming holds her own in this company, with Oramo and his orchestra providing carefully detailed accompaniment.
For me, the highlight of this CD is The Strand Settings by Swedish composer Anders Hillborg, with text from poems by Mark Strand. Strand, born on Prince Edward Island (1934), passed away in Brooklyn, New York in 2014. Over the years, he taught at many different universities including Columbia, Princeton, and Yale. In 1990-91 he was Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress.
The Strand Settings is comprised of four songs beginning with “Black Sea.” This poem includes the words “distant light”, the title of this album. It is nighttime; as the poet gazes out at the sea, he imagines his beloved emerging “out of nowhere.” The lines are beautiful and Hillborg has given them an evocative setting that avoids any attempt to suggest wave motion. Instead, he gives us stasis. Over quiet held chords in the orchestra, Fleming sings the poetry in an almost magical conversational style.
The second song, “Dark Harbor XX”, is very different in its setting and its sound. Again, the poet imagines his beloved appearing out of nowhere, but this time we are in the sunlight, among olive trees. The music here becomes more menacing, with trombones and basses disturbing the calm with angry crescendos.
The third song, “Dark Harbor XXXV”, is even angrier, with violent wind outbursts and rough accents over a jazzy pizzicato walking bass line. The women in this poem have become prostitutes “down by the bus station,” a travesty of loving relationships. The vocal line also becomes rougher, with Fleming, at times, almost growling the words. This movement is a real tour de force for both soloist and orchestra, calling to mind Fleming, the great singing actress, in her role as Blanche in Previn’s opera, A Streetcar Named Desire.
Finally, in the fourth song, “Dark Harbor XI”, the poet recalls the happiness of days past with his beloved, and faded days of sorrow lingering as troubling memories. Musically, Hillborg reverts to the quiet string chords with which the cycle began, and ends the piece on a majestic and comforting major chord.
While The Strand Settings is an important work for soprano and orchestra and merits repeat performances, it is unlikely that many future performances will rise to the high standard set on this recording by the artist who inspired and debuted the piece.
Fleming often sang with a jazz trio early in her career and recorded a mixed album of classics and jazz titled Haunted Heart (Decca 988 0602) in 2005. As she has even ventured into pop music from time to time, it is not surprising that she would be attracted to the work of the Icelandic singer-songwriter, Björk. There is definitely some risk involved in performing repertoire made popular by the creator herself. And there is no denying that if one is already a Björk admirer, one may find it difficult to appreciate performances by anyone else, especially by a singer known primarily as a classical artist; that said, if the performances are good — and Fleming certainly sings this music with a beautiful sound and with total commitment — a great service may have been done to both genres. Fleming’s admirers would probably never listen to recordings by pop artist Björk, but chances are they will readily listen to the same songs performed by their favourite classical soprano.
Overall, a triumph for all concerned. Note: the track to treasure is #4, Fleming’s rendition of Hillborg’s “Dark Harbor XXXV”.
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