Fleming has more than justified her diva status.
Charlotte Gardner 2009
Looking back through musical history, it’s sometimes surprising to see how the composers we revere today were actually part of a number of successful composers of their time. Mozart, for example, had hot competition for opera audiences in the form of Antonio Salieri. This isn’t always the case though, for despite the late 19th and early 20th centuries being extremely prolific for Italian opera, a large number of composers were dwarfed by Giacomo Puccini.
America diva Renée Fleming’s latest album takes some Puccini’s greatest arias and sets them alongside the heroines being created at the same time by his unfortunate rivals Leoncavallo, Mascagni, Catalani, Zandonai, Cilea and Giordano. The repertoire covers a concentrated period, incorporating Puccini’s La Wally (1892) and Turandot (1926). Many of the operas written by Puccini’s contemporaries have dropped out of the modern repertoire, perhaps because the stories themselves are dated or because they don’t work dramatically as theatre pieces. Within what may be dramatic turkeys, however, are musical nightingales.
Verismo refers to the ‘verism’ style popular in the arts at the time, with its focus on realism and naturalism. This meant simple and direct texts, with stories set in the recognisable worlds of common people (although composers soon succumbed to the dramatic possibilities of characters, such as courtesans and noblewomen). These were set to music that avoided vocal display, featured compressed melodic lines, plus constant vocal and orchestral urgency and aggression. Fleming, Armiliato and the orchestra strikingly capture the urgency and aggression, and Fleming’s characterisation of these colourful heroines radiates off the recording; her voice often gasps and quivers in turmoil, with finely judged dynamics and tender little portamenti.
The vocal delivery itself, despite all this drama, is technically perfect, simply delivered and clearly defined. There isn’t an ounce too much embellishment. Jonas Kaufmann joins her for La Rondine’s “Bevo al tuo fresco sorriso”, and the warm sonorities of their two voices are a dream match. The programme also includes the world premiere recording of Puccini’s original manuscript version of “Sola, perduta, abandonata!” from Manon Lescaut. With this recording, Fleming has more than justified her diva status.