Renée Fleming at the TSO

The TSO’s season opener on Wednesday night featured Renée Fleming in one of her rare visits to Toronto.  As one might expect for a crowd friendly season opener it was largely a collection of “lollipops” though the all Ravel first half of the program perhaps had higher ambitions.  The orchestra kicked off with Ravel’s Alborada del gracioso; a rather vulgar piece full of castanets, twiddly Spanish tunes and solo bassoon standing in for a clown.  I guess one could at least say that Peter Oundjian and the orchestra were well into the spirit of the thing.  It was followed up with Schéhérazade.  I’m not sure what the score markings on this are… perhaps “très langueurezzzzz”.  It was a very Renée performance with beauty of tone (even in the soprano killing acoustic) dominating over drama or diction (though again  I’m cognisant that the hall swallows words).  It was a bit understated and I heard comments in the interval from people less well seated than myself that “they couldn’t hear a thing”.

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After the break, and the obligatory frock change, it was into lollipop land.  First the orchestra with rollicking Rossini; the overture to La scala de seta.  I had hopes at this point that the size of the orchestra had been reduced for the second half but the brass and percussion trooped in just before Ms. Fleming made her entrance.  So first, the obligatory Puccini; a very decent account of Si, mi chiamano Mimi.  It’s odd that Renée is expected to sing the famous arias from Puccini roles that she would never sing on stage but no Mozart or Strauss!  Then in it was on to the cheese course with Tosti’s Aprile and Donaudry’s O del mio amato ben.  The latter sounded really good.  It sits well for the most beautiful part of Renée’s voice and luckily that’s the part that projects best at Roy Thomson.  Nice.  Leoncavallo’s Mattinata was in the same vein.

Ms. Fleming withdrew for what we, wrongly, assumed would be another frock change while the orchestra played a snippet from Walton’s score for Henry V.  Then it was onto the bit one sensed a good chunk of the audience had come for; excerpts from The King and I.  We got the utterly bombastic Richard Rodney Bennett orchestration for Shall we dance and Renée singing with hand held mike in a very unoperatic, Broadway style.  Rochester, NY all over this.  And so for two more numbers that pretty much brought the house down.

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There were three encores.  Summertime; which might just have been the best thing of the evening.  It was maybe the best I’ve ever heard it sung and certainly the best and most idiomatic treatment I’ve ever heard from a white person.  Lovely. Then back to Broadway with I could have danced all night, finishing up with a very pretty O mio babbino caro.

It’s the first time I’ve seen Renée Fleming live and it was interesting.  I’d rather hear her sing Strauss at Koerner but this concert delivered what it said on the packet to the obvious delight of most of the punters.

Photo credits: Dale Wilcox

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