Superstar soprano Renee Fleming’s Hong Kong recital shows off her velvety voice, even if programme was light in parts

Singer’s voice is as rich and gorgeous as ever, as she showed in Puccini and Boito arias and Brahms lieder, but she sounded shrill in Over the Rainbow, one of many light numbers that, regrettably, gave her concert a superficial air

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 21 June, 2017, 4:26pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 21 June, 2017, 4:29pm

American soprano Renée Fleming is one of a handful of opera singers today who can be described as genuine superstars beyond the world of classical music.

Known as “the people’s diva”, her exquisite voice, beauty and glamour, allied to her attractively down-to-earth personality, have won fans worldwide, and she received an ecstatic reception from a sold-out Concert Hall at the Hong Kong Cultural Centre.

Earlier this year, at the age of 58, Fleming announced her retirement from classic operatic roles to focus on less vocally strenuous performances in the concert hall and recording studio. This recital proved that her voice is as gorgeous as ever, with its lush, rich tone and exceptional smoothness, and her technique immaculate – her long-held final notes were particularly impressive.

Ahead of Hong Kong recital, soprano Renée Fleming says she’s focusing on lieder, show tunes and new operas

The choice of programme was intended to reflect the diversity of Fleming’s musical tastes. However, jumping from 19th century French songs to Brahms lieder then to Broadway, with a brief detour through Mexico and Spain before arriving in Italy, made for a somewhat indigestible mixture and a certain superficiality.

Lovely though Fleming’s voice undoubtedly is, its velvety sleekness can become bland. Combined with the slight nature of some of the songs, it all began to feel like eating an endless box of chocolates – the menu needed something meatier.

Towards the end of the evening this arrived in the shape of L’altra notte in fondo al mare from Boito’s opera Mefistofele. With its stunning simplicity, this is one of the most moving arias ever written and Fleming came into her own. Her interpretation, as heart-rending as it was vocally beautiful, showed why she is one of the greatest opera singers of her generation.

She followed this with Puccini’s much-loved O mio babbino caro. An ideal fit for Fleming’s creamy, full-toned legato, this was the high point of the evening and rightly brought the house down.

Otherwise, the most artistically substantive section of the programme was a group of six Brahms lieder that featured outstanding work from pianist Hartmut Höll, one of the most distinguished accompanists for the German lieder repertoire. Each of these small gems was superbly sung, with the rapturous Mondnacht especially fine.

Given Fleming’s nationality and efforts to reach a wider audience, including a selection of Broadway hits was inevitable.

Somewhere and I Feel Pretty from West Side Story worked well enough, helped by the semi-operatic style of Bernstein’s music, but Over the Rainbow was a mistake. This song, so identified with the effortless natural beauty of Judy Garland’s voice, simply isn’t suited to classical ornamentation and Fleming tried too hard, missing the plaintive quality the song calls for and hitting some uncharacteristically shrill notes.

The singer was on firmer ground with Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess (which is in fact, as Fleming reminded the audience, an opera) and her encore of Summertime, sung as an aria as the composer originally intended, was sumptuous.

Vocal Recital by Renée Fleming , Hong Kong Cultural Centre Concert Hall. Reviewed: June 20