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Monday, January 16, 2012

Concert Review: She Wants Magic

Renée Fleming and the Met Orchestra at Carnegie Hall.
Renée Fleming. Photo © 2011 QPrime Management.
On Sunday afternoon, the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra came to play Carnegie Hall under the baton of Principal Conductor Fabio Luisi. The program was unusual: alternating two clarinet concertos (by Mozart and Aaron Copland) with short recitals from superstar soprano Renée Fleming.

The afternoon opened with Stephen Williamson playing Mozart's Clarinet Concerto. Mr. Williamson is a principal clarinetist of the MET Orchestra, currently playing with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. This is the last woodwind concerto written by this composer and one of his final works completed before the (unfinished) Requiem.  He played Mozart's athletic solo lines and octave leaps with agility.

Despite generating a pleasing tone, Mr. Williamson kept pausing between movements. He disassembled his clarinet, examined the cork ends, and fiddled with the action on the keys. At the second pause, he wiped  out the inside of the barrel, and bit in a new reed. So in addition to appreciating Mozart, the Carnegie audience may have learned enough to open their own woodwind repair shops.

Ms. Fleming swept onstage (in a bright magenta gown) to sing Mahler' five Ruckert-Lieder. The soprano's voice sounded impressive in the dreamy heights of Ich atmet' einen linden Duft and the extreme depths of Mitternacht. But in each song, her middle register seemed to vanish. Also, Ms. Fleming is an experienced interpreter of Strauss, but she lent a strange inflection to this German text. That said, the final "Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen" was impressive. Mr. Luisi proved a sensitive accompanist.

The second half of the program featured Aaron Copland's concerto, originally written for Benny Goodman. Anthony McGill showed himself to be an outstanding soloist, playing with bright, vibrant tone and racing through Copland's jazz-inflected figures. Mr. Luisi drew some gorgeous sonorities from the Met orchestra, lovely shimmers of strings with Copland's signature tonalities that suggest wide American landscapes and urban bustle.

In the course of her long career, Ms. Fleming has shown commitment to 20th century opera, especially in bringing Carlisle Floyd's powerful Susannah to the Met stage and creating Blanche DuBois in A Streetcar Named Desire. Here, she presented three arias from modern American operas by Samuel Barber and Bernard Hermann.  Two of these arias appear on I Want Magic! the 1998 album which she recorded with the Met Orchestra and Mr. Levine.

She opened the short set with "Give Me Some Music" from Barber's Antony and Cleopatra, the opera that opened the new Met in 1967. Today it is chiefly remembered for director Franco Zeffirelli's extravagant pyramid set, which broke the opera house's brand-new turntable. Here, the soprano battled a sandstorm of orchestration, taxing her instrument to portray the Egyptian queen against the heavy brass and strings of Barber's score. She faced similar challenges in "Do Not Utter a Word" from Vanessa. But Mr. Luisi was more successful in managing the orchestra, creating a rich balance of sound. Ms. Fleming soared to some powerful heights in this frantic scena.

Bernard Herrmann is remembered for his film scores for Alfred Hitchcock: most notably Psycho. "I Have Dreamt" is from his opera Wuthering Heights, and featured Ms. Fleming as Emily Brontë's haunted heroine. Mr. Luisi drew rich tones from the Met orchestra, conveying Mr. Herrmann's rich, Korngold-like textures. But like Catherine's ghost, the middle voice seemed swaddled in the heavy orchestral fabric, and did not make a great case for future mountings of this Gothic opera.

Ms. Fleming offered one encore: "I can smell the sea air" from André Previn's Streetcar. This was a treat for New Yorkers, who have not yet seen this operatic version of the Tennessee Williams play onstage. Ms. Fleming did a powerful job of inhabiting Blanche Dubois's particular descent into madness, arching into Mr. Prévin's lush phrases with ease.

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