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A claim to fame of mine is that I have sung with Renée Fleming: in the chorus of the ‘Vilja’ from Lehár’s Merry Widow. One minute I was sitting there in the Prinzregententheater in Munich on a warm summer’s evening, enjoying the delicious tones of Ms Fleming as she concluded her recital with a generous series of encores; the next I was singing along with her. To be honest she invited the whole audience to join in, so there were over a thousand of us warbling and swaying from side to side, including the leather-jacketed Hagrid sitting next to me who had just driven over 12 hours all the way from Denmark and reeked of cheroots and dog. But I like to think that Renée meant just me. Sadly, no recording exists.

It must be about the only thing that Fleming hasn’t recorded. 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 Fleming had signed a record deal with Decca and since then has become a major recording artist, still going strong even in her seventh decade – she turns 61 this Valentine’s Day. Not since Joan Sutherland, also signed to Decca, has a soprano been documented with such splendid detail throughout her career. But unlike Sutherland, who generally remained faithful to her chosen Fach of bel canto, Fleming has made constantly fresh artistic choices. Onstage I have seen her tackle composers as diverse as Purcell and George Crumb in the same recital. For the latter she actually had to turn her back to audience and stick her head under the piano lid and whisper, so she is not afraid to throw dignity to the winds. And she has preserved her voice – obviously some luck is involved, but her technique must be one of cast iron. The volume might be slightly diminished, but the tone is still radiant, the top is still glorious.

By recording so much, Fleming has undoubtedly set the bar high. She obviously has exacting standards and writes in her artistic autobiography, The Inner Voice, about the quest for perfection. But we look to fellow divas like Anna Netrebko for glamour with a dash of unabashed vulgarity, Angela Gheorghiu for temperament and bad behaviour, Anja Harteros for being reliably unreliable and cancelling. By being vocally dependable, by turning up, by wearing couture and looking immaculate, being ‘The People’s Diva’, does it make a singer perhaps just a tad boring and predictable? Sometimes you just can’t win.

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 offher bel canto credentials with aplomb. The coloratura is precise, she is alert to the dramatic situations, and the voice is youthful and fresh. Even here, Fleming’s attributes are apparent. The voice is well-knit, even throughout the registers, and she is judicious in her use of chest voice. Above the stave the sound blooms with a rare lusciousness. She is not afraid of a high note, interpolated or written, and in fact on recordings ventures as high as a G above top C. Coloratura is fleet, often sung mezza voce, but with a true and tight trill. Sometimes the notes sound learned and correct rather than growing spontaneously from a dramatic situation. 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.

Bel Canto (2002)
Something has to come last, and for me this is it. A surprising mess of an album considering that Fleming consolidated her reputation singing this repertoire – Donizetti’s Maria Padilla was an early role, and she also performed his Lucrezia Borgia onstage, infamously at La Scala in 1998 where she was barracked at the premiere for her adventurous choice of cadenza in the final cabaletta. She relates that the conductor, Gianluigi Gelmetti, collapsed at the performance, and when she enquired about his health the following day he just wrote back saying ‘Your Lucrezia is very special’. Ouch! The album is mannered, ginger in attack and slithery with an unusually unattractive flutter to the tone. Appropriately, the opening aria from La Sonnambula is indeed a complete snooze.

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. If Gelmetti thought her Donizetti was special let’s hope he never heard this. She takes Muse’s Endlessly and turns Matt Bellamy’s yearning song into a rather nasty Europop ditty, and the production sounds tinny, as though she’d got a synthesiser in her bedroom (though we are told it was reassuringly expensive). The final track, Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah, merely adds another ghastly version to that song’s ever- growing graveyard of covers. It is a down with the kids album by the sort of person who actually says down with the kids, and in fact Fleming’s sister and daughters were roped in for backing vocals. It is so bad I perversely love it. If you fancy hearing Fleming let loose non-operatically, then her Broadway album, unimaginatively entitled Broadway, (2018), is a much better bet and displays her stylistic versatility more effectively.

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. She also tackles arias from Ariadne auf Naxos (too low) and Die Ägyptische Helena (too big). Her first recording of the Songs (1996) is cleaner and calmer and much better. It is a crowded market. ‘Other versions are available.’ Her lieder disc Night Songs, (2001) isn’t much more exciting.

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. Well worth a listen if this repertoire interests you.

Thaïs (2000)
Fleming is known for her affi nity with French music, and Massenet’s temptress Thaïs proved greatly congenial. The film from the Met (2010) is enjoyable even if the production is garish schlock – it’s almost worth seeing for Fleming’s Janet Jackson hair and some frocks that Gipsy Rose Lee couldn’t have wriggled out of quickly enough. You might just want to close your eyes and listen to Fleming reduce a fervent Thomas Hampson to rubble on disc – the highway to hell has never sounded so seductive. She also puts her elegant boot in on another baritone, Dmitri Hvorostovsky’s excellent protagonist in Eugene Onegin filmed at the Met (2007), where she becomes movingly involved in the performance.

Handel (2004)
Fleming’s live recording of Alcina from Paris is excellent and features a sparkling cast. But if you would like a taster then her Handel album shows her putting her best foot forwards, with crisp and heartfelt singing in the grand manner. When she sings Let the bright Seraphim there is real exultance to the voice. You might also enjoy her 1996 Mozart album, with some interesting and high-lying decorations.

Capriccio (2004 / 2011 / 2013)
Take your pick – Fleming has filmed Strauss’s late masterpiece thrice, you choose – Paris, 2004; the Met, 2011; Vienna, 2013. It’s a connoisseur’s opera, but with some patience it is accessible if you are new to it, and its slightly cool charms suit Fleming down to a tee. Her DVD of Ariadne auf Naxos is less successful, the role was rather low for her – but her final Der Rosenkavalier, surrounded by a great cast at the Met, is a triumph (2017).

Strauss Heroines (1999)
More delicious signature Strauss – Rosenkavalier, Arabella and Capriccio again, so if you only want one disc of her the composer, this is it. It does highlight how Fleming’s interpretative choices seldom change – in the Arabella duet her descent from F to C-sharp at the line ‘und keine Zweifel werden sein’ is ostentatiously swooned, as it is on her film from Zurich in 2007. Nobody else quite does this, from Viorica Ursuleac who created the role, to great interpreters such as Lisa Della Casa, Gundula Janowitz or Kiri te Kanawa. Perhaps a somewhat self-indulgent mannerism.

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). Plus three great tenors – Heppner, Larin, Beczala respectively – and conductors – Mackerras, Conlon, Nézet-Séguin. The CDs are stunning but the films are also both excellent.

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.

Francis Muzzu Read the full review on Agora Classica

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