Renee Fleming can’t whistle, but she’s certainly capable of just about anything else onstage. She has the ability to control all the air in the room, to expand a note from nearly nothing to feeling as though she has flipped open the top of one’s skull. It’s a necessary trait for the opera stage but an incredible sensation in the more intimate recital setting.
Presented by the Harriman-Jewell Series, she performed with pianist Hartmut Höll in a joyful concert at the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts on Saturday.
Friendly and engaging, she introduced each set with a bit of historical or personal context. A selection of French songs included a defiant “C’est Thaïs, l’idole fragile” by Jules Massenet, the lovely melancholy of Camille Saint-Saëns’ “Soirée en mer” and a coquettish “Je t’aime quand même” by Oscar Straus.
Robert Schumann’s setting of “Frauenliebe und -leben” (A Woman’s Love and Life) charted the arc from giddy girl to tender wife, the emotional high of motherhood to the deep sorrow of widowhood. The song cycle displayed Fleming’s range of expression and Höll’s wonderfully nuanced interpretations of these lieder.
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The Italian set brought forth the latent diva. She coaxed a warm and breezy attitude in Francesco Paolo Tosti’s “Aprile” against the yearning and inevitable heartbreak of Stefano Donaudy’s “O del mio amato ben,” and ended the set with a smile on Ruggero Leoncavallo’s “Mattinata.”
But it was Arrigo Boito’s “L’altra notte in fondo al mare” — its wonderful bird imagery in fluttering accompaniment and luminous vocal trills in contrast to the character’s darkest depths of maddened horror — that elicited prolonged applause.
OK, she probably can whistle, too, but she graciously and good-humoredly invited the audience to participate during her final set of tunes from “The King and I,” by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II. Coming off the heavier fare, she used a microphone so she wouldn’t need to “sound operatic,” she said. A bold “I Whistle a Happy Tune” was matched by a darker toned, heartfelt “Something Wonderful” and capped by a fun, nearly breathlessly paced “Shall We Dance?”
Sartorially, it should be noted that opera divas have the best clothes of any profession. In fact, her second act gown was such a splendor of shimmering bronze (with a trailing cape that billowed dramatically) that it received its own accolades and Fleming coyly acknowledged, “Yes, I will take dress applause.”
Further applause and multiple curtain calls went to her vocal abilities, of course. Fleming and Höll offered three encores, including Jascha Heifetz’s “Estrellita,” the twinkly accompaniment and long, winding line based on a Mexican folk tune, and Lerner and Loewe’s “I Could Have Danced All Night” (soaring atop the audience singalong). She sent the crowd home, though, with a contemplative tone, captivating with her signature tune, Giacomo Puccini’s “A Mio Babbino Caro.”