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December 18, 2009

Renee Fleming soars in recital at the Lyric Opera House

On one level, Renée Fleming’s eloquent recital at the Lyric Opera House Thursday night was just that — a solo performance by a pulchritudinous and ever-engaging soprano, one of the biggest vocal stars on the world stage today. But the event also carried a certain symbolic weight.

Arriving patrons were met at the front door by the familiar greeters in red sashes who used to welcome patrons of the now buried Baltimore Opera Company. In the lobby, a concession stand featured some of the opera-themed items that used to be on sale when that company was in business. Many of the people pouring into the theater were the same ones who used to be seen on opera nights back then.

And, just in case anyone missed the point, there was talk from the stage and in the program book about bringing “grand opera” back to the Lyric, which lost a longtime tenant when Baltimore Opera tanked least season. It remains to be seen if anything approaching that lamented company will ever emerge inside the historic house, but it’s encouraging to see all the determination.

The Lyric certainly couldn’t find a more appealing artist to help kindle the flame than Fleming, whose previous appearance there two years ago happened to be for a Baltimore Opera fundraiser.

The sizable crowd she drew Thursday got to hear her reprise one of the selections from that 2007 concert, the “Willow Song” and “Ave Maria” sung by the doomed Desdemona in the final act of Verdi’s “Otello.” “Let’s see if we can do this without the door alarm,” the soprano joked, referring to

the unfortunate incident that caused her to stop partway through the music on that earlier occasion.


This time, nothing interrupted Fleming as she delivered long scene in trademark fashion, not only lavishing her luscious tone on the melodic lines, but conveying all of the character’s inner turmoil with mesmerizing expressive power. Her delivery of the final, gently rising line was meltingly beautiful.

Here and there during the recital, the singer encountered a raspy patch when moving into the upper reaches, and there was a little articulation fuzziness at the start of the evening in an aria from Rossini’s “Armida” (she stars in a new production of the work at the Met this spring). But these were minor matters in light of all the familiar Fleming magic that filled the space.

Given the predominance of opera excerpts on the program, it was hard not to miss the presence of an orchestra, but pianist Gerald Martin Moore proved a masterful substitute. He produced lots of colors at the keyboard to complement the soprano’s appropriately shimmering account of the “Jewel Song” from Gounod’s “Faust” and provided abundant nuance in the sampling of arias from Fleming’s latest CD, devoted to the verismo age of Italian opera, with its focus on realism (of emotion, if not necessarily plot).

Fleming’s choices for the recital included a touch of the familiar, Mimi’s Act 3 aria from Puccini’s “La Boheme,” and four of the rarities that make the CD so fascinating and valuable — selections from Leoncavallo’s long-overshadowed version of “La Boheme,” Zandonai’s “Conchita” (“Carmen on steroids” is how Fleming described the title character), and Giordano’s “Siberia.” The latter generated a particularly treasurable performance of an first-rate, deeply poetic aria, “Nel suo amore rianimata,” which the soprano capped with a sublime, long-held note.

The non-operatic pieces on the program yielded memorable results as well, for these were songs by Strauss, a composer who always brings out the best in Fleming. She caught the lightness and innocence of “Standchen,” phrased “Freundliche Vision” and “Winterweihe” with extraordinary warmth, and poured on the tonal ecstasy for “Zueignung.” Moore did particularly shining work in the Strauss songs as well.

Another Strauss gem was served up during the encores — an ecstatic “Cacilie.” Fleming also offered a little more Puccini in the form of a sublimely shaped “O mio babbino caro” and, switching to her distinctive pop music side, closed the evening with a poignant performance of a Blossom Dearie song, “Touch the Hand of Love.” The sound of Fleming’s smoky low notes and deeply considered phrasing of that melancholy number lingered in my ears all the way home. (I've attached a video clip of Fleming singing "Touch the Hand of Love" with Yo-Yo Ma and friends.)



Posted by Tim Smith at 1:27 PM | | Comments (3)


As a Board member of the Lyric Foundation and attendee to this wonderful event, the opportunity to support high quality Opera in Baltimore is a goal. These are tough economic times for all venues of music to plays. Yet for an instant last night started wit the sold out Opera support dinner at the Lyric before Ms. Fleming's recital to her singular presence in delighting the fans and supporters of Opera, a small spark is kindled. We own a deep thanks to last nights patrons and sponsors and the commitment of the City of Baltimore, Baltimore County and the State of Maryland in support of the Lyric to foster the the rebirth of Opera.

Brava to a wonderful soprano and bravo to Baltimore for coming out to celebrate opera's return to Charm City. This was a magical concert and we look forward to more at The Lyric in 2010.

The magic was back, albeit just for one lovely evening. Ms. Fleming sparkled and couldn't have been lovelier and more generous with her glorious voice and her presence afterwards.
Cheers to everyone.
Frauke D.

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About Tim Smith
Born and raised in Washington, D.C., I couldn't help but develop a keen interest in politics, but music, theater and visual art also proved great attractions. Music became my main focus after high school. I thought about being a cocktail pianist, but I hated taking requests, so I studied music history instead, earning a B.A. in that field from Eisenhower College (Seneca Falls, N.Y.) and an M.A. from Occidental College (Los Angeles). I then landed in journalism. After freelancing for the Washington Post and others, I was classical music critic for the Sun-Sentinel in South Florida, where I also contributed to NPR. I've written for the New York Times, BBC Music Magazine and other publications, and I'm a longtime contributor to Opera News. My book, The NPR Curious Listener's Guide to Classical Music (Perigee, 2002), can be found on the most discerning remainder racks.

I joined the Baltimore Sun as classical music critic in 2000 and, in 2009, also became theater critic, giving me the opportunity to annoy a whole new audience. In 2010, my original Clef Notes blog expanded to encompass a theatrical component -- how could I resist calling it Drama Queens? I hope you'll find both sides of this blog coin worth exploring and reacting to; your own comments are always welcome and valued (well, most of them, at least).

Think of this as your open-all-hours, cyber green room, where there's always a performer or performance to discuss, some news to digest, or maybe just a little good gossip to share.
Note: Tim Smith now writes about the fine arts at This blog will be kept in place as an archive for an indefinite period. Please visit the new location to get the latest Mid-Atlantic arts coverage.
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