Renée Fleming – I Want Magic




Renée Fleming was at her peak when this recital was recorded and this is, without doubt, one of her most successful records. The programme is a varied one too, with familiar items like Gershwin’s Summertime and Bernstein’s Glitter and be gay rubbing shoulders with items from more rarely performed works like Hermann’s Wuthering Heights and Floyd’s Susannah. The inclusion of Anne’s No word from Tom from Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress rather stretches the subtitle American Opera Arias a bit, but is possibly justified as Auden, Kallman and Stravinsky were all resident in the US at the time of its composition.

The disc opens with a short extract from Bernard Herrmann’s Wuthering Heights, which was written in 1943 but never staged in Herrmann’s lifetime. In fact it was only premiered in 1982 by Portland Opera, but with the ending changed to one Julius Rudel had proposed several years earlier. It wasn’t performed in full until 2011, by Minnesota Opera. I have dreamt, lusciously sung here by Fleming, woud suggest the opera might be worth further investigation.

The excerpts from Douglas Moore’s The Ballad of Baby Doe and Menotti’s The Medium are both lovely in every way, but the Gershwin items from Porgy and Bess suffer from a lack of spontaneity. Fleming introduces all sorts of jazzy slides and glottal attacks which simply sound affected. Leontyne Price sings this music much more simply and allows it to blossom on its own.

The considerable difficulties of Bernstein’s Glitter and be gay are tossed off with ease and here she captures the irony in the piece marvellously. It’s a piece that, unsurprisingly, many opera singers have added to their repertoire but few of them challenge the original interpreter, Broadway star Barbara Cook, who created the role and whose diction is a good deal more clear. To be honest, the only “operatic” version I’ve heard that does is Dawn Upshaw’s, but Fleming’s is certainly amongst the best.

Next we have two pieces from Carlisle Floyd’s Susannah, which brought back happy memories of seeing Fleming in the role at the Met shortly after she recorded these exceprts. She is at her considerable best here, flooding the gratefully lyrical lines with gorgeous tone, but also capturing the character’s longing for adventure in the first, her loneliness in the second.

Finally we have a reminiscence of her Anne Trulove, which she sang at the Aspen Music Festival in 1987 and a taster of her Blanche Dubois in Previn’s A Streetcar Named Desire, which she premiered soon after making this recording. She has a richer voice than most Annes, but negotiates its complexities with ease and her Blanche is simply hors concours. The aria I want magic was an obvious high spot when she sang the role in London with the LSO, but I rather wish they had also included the final aria, I can smell the sea air, which had a huge effect on me each time I heard it whilst waiting in the wings to make my entrance as the doctor. It was one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever heard.

Sandwiched between the Stravinsky and the Previn we have Vanessa’s passionate Act I aria from Barber’s opera, which left me wondering why nobody had thought to revive the opera with Fleming in the title role. It would have suited her perfectly.

If I have any reservations, aside from those I mentioned about the Gershwin pieces, I’d have to say that her diction could be clearer. Other than that, this is an absorbing and rewarding programme stunningly sung and beautifully executed. Don’t hesitate.

Knoxville: Summer of 1915 – Dawn Upshaw


It seems incredible now that this disc was released over 30 years ago, but there it is, clearly written in the insert, “Recorded August 1988 at Manhattan Center Studios, New york”, though, IIRC, it had a different cover on its first release.

Barber’s wonderfully nostalgic Knoxville, Summer of 1915, a setting of James Agee’s prose-poem has now, it would seem, become quite popular. It was first recorded by its dedicatee, Eleanor Steber in 1950, a couple of years after its premiere, but had to wait another eighteen years before being recorded again, though very successfully by Leontyne Price. It had to wait a further twenty years for this version by Dawn Upshaw, but its success has led to a spate of others by the likes of Barbara Hendricks, Sylvia McNair, Roberta Alexander, Kathleen Battle, Jill Gomez, Karina Gauvin and, most recently, Renee Fleming.

Steber was a wonderful singer, and her version is very fine, but for me it misses the essential childlike quality of the piece and she can sound a bit mature, even a trifle prim. Price, on the other hand, is surprisingly successful at scaling down her rich velvety voice to the needs of the writing, and her version is deservedly well known. Dawn Upshaw, on the other hand, has by nature what Price had to strive for. She has exactly the light voice and direct manner the piece needs and there is no need for her to characterise; she simply has to be herself, her diction natural and unforced. David Zinman’s tempi are also just right, and it is no surprise to find that this version has been a top recommendation since it was first issued.

The rest of the programme is also attractive, its centrepiece being John Harbison’s Mirabai Songs, originally written for piano, but here given in his chamber orchestra version. The songs are settings of 16th century devotional Indian poems by Mirabai, who, after her husband died, devoted her life to the God Krishna. The texts are alternatively erotic, ecstatic and devotional, the orchestrations colourful, the vocal range wide and Upshaw is fully up to their demands.

The interesting but quite short programme is rounded off with a couple of operatic pieces, a short extract from Menotti’s radio opera The Old Maid and the Thief, and Anne Trulove’s No word from Tom from Sravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress, and Upshaw would seem perfectly cast in both.

Like most of Upshaw’s records the material chosen is refreshingly different and well worth investigating.