Friday 30 October 2009

CD Review - Renee Fleming's Verismo

For her new album Renee Fleming has ventured into relatively new territory, a disc of arias from verismo operas. In operatic terms, verismo is slightly nebulous. It was in fact an Italian literary movement which in the late 19th and early 20th century brought realism into their writing. The verismo operatic school is associated with Mascagni, Leoncavallo and Puccini. The prime exponents being Mascagni's Cavalleria Rusticana and Leoncavallo's I Pagliacci. The subject matter dealt with contemporary everyday subjects. The term has come to refer the Italian post-Verdian school of operatic writing and does not really distinguish between the operas which come close to the verismo manifesto and those, like Mascagni's Iris, whose subject matter is far from everyday. The other aspect of verismo operas is the tendency for the musical material to be continuous, so that arias are fewer and shorter.

On this disc Fleming has bravely chosen a wide repertoire of lesser known pieces. Where operas do have well known numbers, like Catalani's La Wally and Cilea's Gloria, she has chosen to sing other pieces from the operas. The only really well known arias in the recital are those by Puccini.

She opens with Senza Mamma from Suor Angelica. This reflects another vein which runs through the verismo operas, a strong vein of sentimentality. My first reaction to hearing Fleming singing this repertoire was that she is highly interventionist, each note is individually shaped, pushed and shoved, whilst keeping a sense of line. It surprised me how well this worked. Her upper registers is still free and lovely, something rather necessary in Suor Angelica. She is expressive and her diction is good.

Iris is Mascagni's Japanese opera and in Un di Iris narrates how one day at the temple a priest told her pleasure and death were one! Fleming is attractively urgent here and builds to a good climax.

Puccini's La Rondine is hardly unknown nowadays, though it is less highly regarded than his other works. It is also far from the verismo canon. But in Ore dolci e divine Fleming shows that Magda suits her voice well. Here though, I did think there was some strain on the top. Also, I began to be rather too conscious of the artfulness that went in to the performance.

Flammen, Perdonami from Mascagni's Lodoletta involves the heroine dying in a snow-storm even though the hero is outside as will and seems to be unaffected. Here Fleming is expressive and dramatic, though the tone does get a little squeezed at the top.

Ne mai dunquie avro pace is, rather admirably, NOT the well known aria from Catalani's La Wally, the opera with the rather butch Swiss heroine who saves the hero at one point. By this time I was starting to find Fleming's generous vibrato rather intrusive and a little all to encompassing.

Si, mi chiamano Mimi from Puccini's La Boheme and Donde lieta usci are probably best considered as contrast for the two excerpts from Leoncavallo's La Boheme. In the Puccini arias, Fleming's Mimi is a little too artful and mannered, you are conscious of the swooping voice and breathless tone, but she is affecting nonetheless. She spins a lovely line but never quite tugs the heart strings.

Musette svaria sulla bocca viva and Mimi Pinson, la biondinetta are two charming numbers from Leoncavallo's La Boheme. As anyone who saw the ENO production of the opera, this work is not inconsiderable. But here its weaknesses show, the music is lovely and charming, but tells you far less about the character than Puccini's does.

In the longest track on the opera, Angioletto, il tuo nome from Leoncavallo's Zaza shows Leoncavallo experimenting with textures. The libretto is about a French music-hall singer who leaves her lover because he is married. In this excerpt Zaza sings a big romantic number in dialogue with the child, Toto, who speaks over instrumental accompaniment. Part of the way through Leoncavallo introduces a paino and later a solo cello, thus providing an array of interesting textures and colours. Perhaps because the excerpt is rather longer, Fleming seemed to bring to this the passionate intensity which is missing in the other tracks.

In Sola perduta abbandonata from Puccini's Manon Lescaut Fleming does give us chest tones and strong emoting, but I rather missed the darker vocal colours which other singers have brought to this role. Taken on her own terms, however, this was lovely, the climaxes wonderful and she gives us the original manuscript version of the aria, evidently its first outing on disc.

Zandonai's Conchita set a libretto (based on Pierre Louys) which was rejected by Puccini. Ier della fabbrica a Triana is very much a character number, which seemed to want a tighter less voluptuous voice.

Cilea's Gloria is a rather Romeo and Juliet-ish story set in Sienna and in O mia cuna, fiorita di sogni e di melodi Fleming is convincingly impassioned.

Giordano's Fedora does have a flickering half-life in the theatre, though Troppo tardi! Tutto tramonta, tutto dilegua is not one if its best known numbers. Giordano provides melodic material in plenty but the piece never seems to settle into the big number that it seems to want to be. Here Fleming is wonderfully passionate and intense.

With Tu che di gel sei from Turandot we are back on familiar ground. Here there is just too much artfulness and not enough directness in Fleming's performance. It is admirable and impressive but we are a little too aware of the way the voice has to be controlled. I would hardly imagine this role would be core repertoire for the singer nowadays.

Nel suo amore rianimata from Giordano's Siberia is very short and rather charming.

Finally the set finishes off with Fleming being joined by Jonas Kauffmann for Bevo al tuo fresco from La Rondine I don't know whether I'd want the complete recording but it is delightful.

In all the arias Fleming is well supported by Marco Armiliato and the Orchestra Sinfonica di Milano Giuseppe Verdi.

On this set Fleming shows that her art is about much more than luxuriating in a beautiful voice. Many of these arias need more than just a lovely line, and by and large this is what Fleming gives is. Frankly, she lacks the chest register and the simple, direct gutsy singing that are best in some of these pieces. If I had to choose a single singer than I would prefer someone like Renata Tebaldi. But Fleming shows that she can bring something to the pieces. But in her choice of aria and in her performance, Fleming is refreshingly different and brings something new and interesting. Recommended.

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