Tickets were booked months in advance, dates scrawled into diaries and evenings reserved as soon as the finale of the National Concert Hall’s 2012/2013 International Concert Season was announced to be one of the world’s most outstanding Sopranos, Renée Fleming, making her début performance in Ireland. Being her first, and most likely last performance due to her rumoured upcoming retirement, this was certainly the recital of the year for any classical music fan in Ireland.
Clearly delighted to be performing somewhere for the first time, Ms Fleming quickly introduces herself with the statement ‘It’s great at this point to be able to have a debut’. Part of the joy of having such a reputation behind you is the freedom to put together a programme of pieces you really connect with, which was clearly a large part of this recital. Ms Fleming introduces pieces as if they are old friends of hers, each with their own character and spark. The opening selection of oratorio arias by George Frideric Handel, beginning with O Sleep, Why Dost Thou Leave Me, the years Ms Fleming has spent perfecting her art are immediately obvious. Immense control is exercised from the opening note, and maintained throughout the entire recital, noticeable particularly through Handel’s notoriously tricky runs, which are handled with the relaxed hand of a true professional.
Three songs from Strauss follow, with the skills of pianist Maciej Pikulski coming to the fore. His touch is light and airy, creating a glistening backdrop for the stunning soprano line of Ms Fleming. As an accompanist, he is little short of perfect, moving with Ms Fleming as she takes a moment’s rubato, supporting her through rhythmically awkward sections, and remaining suitably reserved, not distracting from her performance. Ms Fleming’s passion for French music emerges with her performance of the Debussy pieces. Lively and spirited, it is certain that Ms Fleming is doing anything but churning out old favourites. This programme has been hand-picked, carefully chosen and constructed to be a tribute to the musical passions of Ms Fleming. The chosen operatic arias, such as Puccini’s Donde Lieta Uscí from ‘La Bohéme’ in which a dying woman tells her lover that she is leaving him, is full of melancholy, emotion and story-telling, highlighting well Ms Fleming’s long career in Opera performance and capabilities as an actress. Verdi’s Piangea Cantando – Ave Maria from ‘Otello’ is utterly enthralling, drawing the audience in entirely, its quiet and melancholic aura dotted with moments of explosive passion.
Returning for an encore, Ms Fleming takes on a more light-hearted programme, performing Aritha Franklin’s Summertime, I Feel Pretty from Bernstein’s ‘West Side Story’ and Puccini’s incredibly famous aria O Mio Babbino Caro from opera ‘Gianni Schicchi’. This proved to be a selection of very popular favourites to end the evening, each performed with great sensitivity to the background of the piece. Summertime is a jazzy sensation, sultry, lustful and incredibly soulful. I Feel Pretty is a celebration of youth, full of spirit and joy, and finally O Mio Babbino Caro is perfection – a wonderful performance of one of opera’s favourite arias.
Ms Fleming doesn’t need to prove anything to anyone. and that becomes clear during her recital performances. Here is a woman who truly enjoys her work. Laughing and smiling throughout, but wonderfully emotionally connected with each work, the amount of preparation and research that she puts into each work becomes clear. She waltzes from song to song with a light-hearted smile and laugh, but it is obvious how seriously she takes her performance, giving great respect to the work of each composer she approaches. For any aspiring operatic performers, the work of such a star should be become a benchmark. Wonderful control, incredible tone and excellent acting, Ms Fleming is truly the epitome of operatic performance – a true master of her trade.