By Lawrence Toppman
I’ve been lucky enough to hear many great singers in their 60s. Frank Sinatra captivated a casino crowd for two full hours. Leontyne Price bewitched an audience with baroque arias and spirituals on her farewell tour. Renata Scotto struggled to sing the Marschallin in Richard Strauss’ “Der Rosenkavalier” but won us over with her warmth and dramatic authority. Jerome Hines’ bass had become so dark that you scarcely noticed his hammy acting.
But each of them had lost a step, as sportswriters like to say. So when conductor laureate Christopher Warren-Green introduced 64-year-old Renée Fleming Wednesday night as “One of the greatest singers of all time,” I raised an eyebrow at the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra gala. What did “greatness” mean in the last decade of a performing career?
In this case, it meant unbroken communication with the audience, as she ranged from the quiet ecstasies of Strauss’ Four Last Songs to the proud yet self-teasing sentiments of Andrew Lippa’s “The Diva” to the inspirational power of “Climb Ev’ry Mountain.” (Anyone mounting a revival of “The Sound of Music” should immediately hire her for the Mother Superior.)
I’ve heard the wonderful Eileen Farrell go from Wagnerian outbursts to well-judged renditions of the Great American Songbook. A few classical singers — Ezio Pinza, Robert Merrill, Helen Traubel – left a stamp on Broadway or film musicals after quitting opera. But I have never heard so flexible a voice come out of the classical field and cross boundaries so easily.
Her greatness lies in this adaptability. Like Mikhail Baryshnikov, the most versatile dancer I’ve seen, everything she does seems natural, exactly the right expression for that moment and style. She sings Broadway tunes like a Broadway singer, Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” like a pop singer, “The Diva” like a cabaret artist, Francesco Cilea’s “Adriana Lecouvreur” with the intensity suited to a classical aria about devotion to music.
Her voice may no longer have quite the creamy perfection I first heard at Spoleto Festival USA, where she sang Countess Almaviva in “Le Nozze de Figaro” in 1989. She doesn’t effortlessly soar to the heights of Strauss’ “Beim Schlafengehen,” where she echoes the ascending line of a celestial violin. She compensates with a directness and depth of expression that never fail her, whether jaunting through a funny aria from Ruggero Leoncavallo’s “La Boheme” or sustaining a hushed “pieta” at the end of Puccini’s “O Mio Babbino Caro.”
She had an obvious rapport with Warren-Green, who conducted three instrumental overtures to give her breathers and time to change from a champagne-colored, floor-length dress to a fiery, copper-colored number.
His “Carousel Waltz” seemed perfunctory, lacking the full degree of Richard Rodgers’ swoony, dark-hued giddiness. The overture to Verdi’s “La Forza Del Destino,” on the other hand, throbbed with the emotions of that turbulent opera, and the overture to Johann Strauss’ “Die Fledermaus” had bounce and vigor without seeming hurried. (Did you know the CSO’s former music director recorded an entire album of Strauss family waltzes 20 years ago? I like it.)
Warren-Green was mostly there to support Fleming sensitively and even swingingly, when rock instruments kicked in for Lippa’s “Diva.” That number made her seem both glamorous and approachable, a combination no other opera singer has pulled off so well. Many female singers have had a glossy elegance, from Maria Callas to Angela Gheorghiu, and a handful – Farrell, Beverly Sills, Marilyn Horne – have been people who’d joke with you over a beer. Fleming has both elements, movie-star looks and down-to-Earth personality.
She referred to herself jokingly in Lippa’s number as a soprano “of indeterminate age.” Earlier, she had uttered the fateful words of Adriana Lecouvreur, the only character in opera history to be murdered by poisoned violets: “My voice is but a breath, which tomorrow will die.” As long as Fleming grips audiences the way she did Wednesday, that day will not come.
Pictured: Renée Fleming by Andrew Eccles/Decca