Is Decca cornering the market on great sopranos? Just recently we had Angela Gheorghiu's knockout disc of Verdi arias, and now we have Renée Fleming, essentially a lyric soprano, making inroads into what used to be Renata Scotto's territory. Scotto was an emotional and intelligent singer, one who had great instincts but who also knew how to control them. Fleming has those qualities too, and although she is an American, she is convincingly Italianate here. She's made a believer out of me.
The first thing that one notices about this CD is the beauty of the voice. Fleming has a gorgeous, sexy instrument, and it doesn't let her down anywhere in her range. There are some breathtaking things on this CD. For example, at the end of "Come in quest'ora bruna" from Simon Boccanegra, a diminuendo on a high note scales her voice down to a shivery sliver, and then she rapturuously descends the arpeggio stepwise at the same dynamic level. Such control does not come easy, but she exerts it without sacrificing the character or the mood.
Fleming only has a few minutes to acquaint us with each of her roles, and yet she doesn't fail to show us the differences between Butterfly and Musetta, Adriana Lecouvreur and Wally, Micaela and Manon, and so on. She could be a great Mimì, but on this CD, she chooses to be a seductive, insinuating Musetta. One track later, her Turandot Liù is heartbreaking in its simplicity. Interestingly, when her Adriana tells assembled admirers that she is a "humble handmaiden" of art, one can believe that she means it. (In an early EMI recital, Maria Callas sang the same aria and had us believe that Adriana was only faking humility – certainly a valid characterization.)
The "Boléro" from Les Vêpres Siciliennes is sung in French. This also is valid, given the Parisian première, but I believe that Fleming would have projected the text a little more if she had sung it in Italian. There is a chorus in this aria, and also in the Norma "Casta Diva" that precedes it, and they do good work. Most of the London Philharmonic's playing is very fine, although I thought that the winds were too perky in the Simon Boccanegra aria; after all, this is a song just before sunrise. Mackerras is supportive, but he clearly has his ideas – and good ones – about how these arias should go.
As I received an early promotional copy of this CD, I can't comment on the booklet or on other accompanying materials. Decca could package this CD in vat of industrial sludge, however, and I would still want it. Now I'm off to find some of Fleming's earlier recital discs!
Copyright © 2000, Raymond Tuttle