Renée Fleming: a survey of her recorded legacy11:03, 5th February 2020
Francis Muzzu gives a personal overview of the 25-year recording career of opera’s leading soprano
Mention Renée Fleming to a group of opera lovers and you get a wide variety of opinions – gorgeous, boring, fabulous, dull, charismatic, mannered, instantly recognisable, no personality. For a singer renowned for reliable beauty of tone, for turning up and for total commitment, Fleming certainly proves controversial.
She first came to notice in the late 1980s and early’ 90s. A series of debuts made her name – Houston in 1988, Covent Garden in 1989 and the Met, which became her base, in 1991. By 1996 she had signed a record deal with Decca and since then has become a major recording artist, still going strong even in her seventh decade.
Fleming’s earlier recordings reveal the voice in all its glory. Her first complete opera was Donizetti’s rarity, Rosmonda d’Inghilterra, recorded for Opera Rara in 1994, and she shows off her bel canto credentials with aplomb.
A trip through her recorded and filmed legacy will give us an overview of the good, the bad and the very occasionally ugly. Decide whether she really is The Beautiful Voice, or, as her detractors say, ‘La Scoopenda’. I’ve put my choices in reverse order, from the regrettable to the delectable.
10. Bel Canto (2002) A surprising mess of an album considering that Fleming consolidated her reputation singing this repertoire. The album is mannered, ginger in attack and slithery with an unusually unattractive flutter to the tone.
9. Dark Hope (2010) Renée, what were you thinking? Fleming takes a random bunch of pop and rock songs by acts as diverse as Duffy, Arcade Fire and Tears for Fears, and gives them a makeover they didn’t need, using a husky contralto.
8. Four Last Songs (2008) This was Fleming’s second recording of Strauss’ Vier letzte Lieder and they reveal her tone at its most sumptuous, but her style at its most mannered. She swoops and scoops annoyingly to her heart’s delight.
7. I Want Magic (1998) Fleming in prime voice and offering a selection of arias by American composers – Herrmann, Menotti, Gershwin, Bernstein, Barber, Floyd – and singing in her native tongue with clarity and engagement.
6. Thaïs (2010) Fleming is known for her affinity with French music, and Massenet’s temptress Thaïs proved greatly congenial – the highway to hell has never sounded so seductive. The film from the Met (2010) is enjoyable even if the production is garish schlock.
5. Handel (2004) If you would like a taster of Fleming singing Handel, this album shows her putting her best foot forwards, with crisp and heartfelt singing in the grand manner.
4. Capriccio (2004 / 2011 / 2013) Take your pick – Fleming has filmed Strauss’s late masterpiece thrice: Paris 2004; the Met 2011; Vienna 2013. The opera’s slightly cool charms suit her down to a tee.
3. Strauss Heroines (1999) More delicious signature Strauss – Rosenkavalier, Arabella and Capriccio again – so if you only want one disc of Fleming singing this composer, this is it.
2. Rusalka (1998 / 2002 / 2014) Three more choices: CDs (1998) which became an instant classic; plus films from Paris (filmed 2002 in a highly intelligent production by Robert Carsen) and the Met (2014, more traditional). The CDs are stunning but the films are also both excellent.
1. The Beautiful Voice (1998) If you are only going to purchase one album you might as well make it this one, recorded when the voice was at its peak and before any annoying habits crept in. Her ‘Depuis le jour’ (from Gustave Charpentier’s Louise) rivals Eleanor Steber’s classic take, and she is meltingly beautiful in one of her signature arias, ‘Marietta’s Lied’ from Korngold’s Die tote Stadt, perfectly simple in The Last Rose of Summer (Flotow) and soars effortlessly in ‘Il bel sogno di Doretta’ from Puccini’s La Rondine. Not a greatly challenging programme for the listener, but if you are going to market yourself as having the most beautiful voice in the world you have to live up to it – and here, she does.