Renée Fleming at Cal Performances

The always lovely Renée Fleming gave a recital filled with her personal beauty at Zellerbach Auditorium this past weekend. Accompanied by pianist Richard Bado, a sensitive accompanist and skilled musician, she gave Cal Peformances’ adoring audience a remarkable tour through the history of European and American song.

The recital began with four songs by Schubert, described by Fleming as the “foundation of classical recitals.” The songs were filled with the composer’s heated intensity in settings of Goethe and Frederich Schlegel, though Fleming kept to the quietness of the art song, only occasionally opening up with the largeness of sound so characteristic of opera arias. In the songs’ midst was “Die Vögel,” a bright and enchanting song with lyrics from the viewpoint of a bird, who looks down on earthbound hunters and vows to steal the fruit from their trees. Fleming’s delight in singing this song was equally charming.

Renée Fleming. Photo by Jonathan Tichler.

Although Fleming studied in Germany, she confessed that her favorite language to sing in was French, and her rendition of Reynaldo Hahn’s “Si mes vers avaient des ailes” had a lucid and elegant simplicity, the music sounding contemporary in its setting of Victor Hugo’s wistful love song. Delibes’ “Les filles de Cadiz” allowed for vocal fireworks, and the Liszt songs for pianistic ones.

Fleming returned after intermission, replacing her shimmering bronze dress of asymmetrical folds with an aqua gown of even more opulent folds and exotic shine. The second half was dedicated to more operatic and, with the exception of two songs by Franz Lehár, more contemporary fare.

She opened with selections from an opera by Kevin Puts she debuted in 2016, Letters from Georgia. The letters, Fleming said, revealed Georgia O’Keefe’s love affair with the West. And, she continued, they describe not only the landscape but also the artist’s need for autonomy, to be “a maverick at all costs”. After a flood of piano notes at fortissimo, the songs subsided into the poignantly lyrical “Canyon”, Fleming’s voice lifting like “gray blue clouds … flashes of lightning.”

Fleming also sang an aria from another contemporary opera she debuted, this time in San Francisco, Blanche DuBois’ aria “I Want Magic” from André Previn’s Streetcar Named Desire. Fleming suffused the song with magic rather than delusion, giving a reading of the character that was more nuanced than is typical of theatrical performances.

Similarly her rendition of “The Sound of Music,” which is so frequently heard that it borders on cliché, had a warmth and sense of wonder over the natural world that is not heard in other more upbeat renditions.

The recital closed with a song by Richard Rogers’ grandson, Adam Guettel, “Fable” from the 2005 musical, The Light in the Piazza. Fleming will be opening this at LA Opera this coming week, and the song was a seductive taste of what the musical performance will offer.

As an encore, Fleming sang the exquisite “Morgen” by Richard Strauss, with its tender, hesitating accompaniment. She dedicated the song to Jessye Norman, a friend who had “the most unique voice we have ever heard.” Norman interpretation of this song and other Strauss lieder is considered among the best, and is often identified with her.

Fleming began her dedication by saying she had been thinking about art so much in the past week since Norman’s death, that art is “what we remember and is the best that man can offer.” Her recital in all its considered beauty embodied that.

—Jaime Robles