Renée Fleming is without question the opera diva of the day. She appeared in a gala concert at Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra last Thursday evening, celebrating the long tenure of her old friend Andreas Delfs as music director.
Richard Strauss' lush and poignant Four Last Songs especially suit Fleming's voice. Written just a year before his death, the set is about the end of life. The third and fourth songs were particularly moving. Fleming moves easily and seamlessly from warm, chesty tones up through the middle range to soaring but easily produced high notes. She has a distinctive, dark tone unusual for a lyric soprano, and can sustain a melody on her deep reserves of breath longer than just about anyone.
The five encores included a seldom heard aria from Erich Korngold's opera Die Kathrin, the "Song to the Moon" from Dvorák's Rusalka (a Fleming specialty), a rather mannered but incredibly sustained "O mio babbino caro" (Puccini, Gianni Schicchi), and two Strauss songs orchestrated by the composer, "Zueignung" and "Morgen." The last, a tender piece about moving forward with faith and love, was the most beautiful singing of the evening.
The concert began with more Strauss. The tone poem Also sprach Zarathustra (its opening made famous in the film 2001: A Space Odyssey) is a reaction to Nietzsche's philosophical book of the same title. This magical tapestry of orchestration showed off all the strengths of the MSO and Delfs' affinity with German romantic repertory. The piece was repeated on the subscription concert on Friday night. The two performances I heard were very similar, both thrilling. The delicate and tricky ending was a little more assured on Thursday evening.Besides Fleming, these concerts had another star in Frank Almond, who played solos throughout Zarathustra, in two of Fleming's selections and, if that wasn't enough, the Bruch Violin Concerto No. 1 on the weekend. All this music played to Almond's distinctive ability to make the violin sing. He dashed off the bravura passages of the concerto with ease. The color of the sound on broad melodies was breathtaking, an ideal balance of restraint and emotion.