Renée Fleming, Susan Graham in recital

New York, Carnagie Hall, Stern Auditorium
Soprano Renée Fleming
Mezzosoprano Susan Graham
Pianoforte Bradley Moore
Camille Saint-Saëns:“Pastorale”; “Viens! une flûte invisible”; “El desdichado” Gabriel Fauré:“Puisqu’ici bas,” Op. 10, No. 1;  “Pleurs d’or,” Op. 72; Pavane in F-sharp Minor, Op. 50; “Tarentelle,” Op. 10, No. 2
Claude Debussy: “Clair de lune”; “Mandoline”; “Beau soir”
Léo Delibes: “Les filles de Cadix”
Reynaldo Hahn: “Le rossignol des lilas”; “Infidélité”; “Fêtes galantes” ; “Le printemps”
Hector Berlioz:“La mort d’Ophélie,” Op. 18, No. 2; “Blanche-marie et Marie-Blanche” from Les P’tites Michu
Jacques Offenbach:
Barcarolle da Les contes d’Hoffmann
Léo Delibes: “Duo des fleurs” da Lakmé
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: “Ah guarda sorella” da Così fan tutte
Louis Guglielmi: “La Vie en rose”
Joseph Canteloube:“Malurous qu’o uno fenno” da Chants d’ Auvergne
Engelbert Humperdinck:”Preghiera” da Hansel and Gretel
New York, 27 gennaio 2013

Each season since 1999, Carnegie Hall has offered the “Perspectives” program, in which significant artists perform a series of concerts intended to highlight different aspects of their musical talents, influences, and achievements. These artists have included the American soprano Dawn Upshaw, whose repertoire is notably adventurous, and the Polish–American pianist Emanuel Ax. This spring’s “Perspectives” artist is the American soprano Renée Fleming, who launched her series of concerts in a duo recital with American mezzo-soprano Susan Graham. Accompanied by pianist Bradley Moore, the singers performed in Stern Auditorium on January 27. (Prior to this appearance, the artists took a tour through San Francisco, Los Angeles, Palm Springs, and Chicago; Boston heard the final performance, on February 3.)
Fleming and Graham have been friends for 25 years, and their collaborations, particularly in Strauss’ Der Rosenkavalier, have proved both artistically satisfying and extremely popular in venues around the world. As Graham noted, “New York audiences have seen us together more than anyone else,” but “This is the first time we’ve appeared onstage together — in dresses,” since Graham has played trouser roles in every opera in which the two women have appeared.
The recital could be presumed then to shed light on Fleming as a colleague, rather than as a stand-alone star, and the impression she gave was one of extreme generosity, since the evening’s program drew on French chansons of the Belle Epoque, repertoire with which Graham is far more closely associated than Fleming is. Nevertheless, to the extent that many of these chansons benefit from the kind of cream-on-velvet treatment that Fleming so memorably gives to the near-contemporaneous Lieder of Strauss and other German composers, the program might have been nearly as flattering to her as it was to Graham — but this didn’t entirely prove to be the case.
Fleming’s voice retains much of its almost unearthly beauty, and it would be wrong to give the impression that she was anything less than appealing on this occasion. However, opposite Graham, whose voice surged, even in scrupulously (and ravishingly) blended duets with Fleming, Fleming sounded somewhat pale and underpowered except in her highest registers. Nearing her fifty-fourth birthday, Fleming is at her best in solos (notably Délibes’ “Les Filles de Cadix”) with which she exploited her affinity for rapid-fire coloratura, and elsewhere, especially in two songs by Debussy, Fleming’s voice shimmered and shone. Coming off of a successful run of Berlioz’s Les Troyens at the Metropolitan Opera, Graham’s singing revealed unmistakable confidence, energy, and a bright, burnished sound.
The evening began with the voice of the Scots soprano Mary Garden, heard in an interview recorded toward the end of her life, in which she discussed French music in tart yet affectionate terms. The use of this archival material signaled from the outset that Fleming and Graham would dispense with many of the usual formalities of recital performances, a signal that was reified when the ladies appeared onstage and welcomed the audience to “our salon.” In between sets, Fleming and Graham spoke, providing background on the composers as well as tribute to Garden, Sibyl Sanderson, and other English-speaking divas who made important contributions to this repertoire.
Throughout these little speeches, Fleming projected the persona of a rather earnest musicology student, while Graham opted for a looser, sassy approach, often to comedic effect. For example, when discussing Reynaldo Hahn, she recalled the composer’s habit of singing and accompanying himself on piano while a cigarette dangled from his lip: “It’s not easy, let me tell you,” Graham joked. The payoff came when she made her entrance for her solo encore — with an unlit cigarette between her lips — and she proceeded to sing “La Vie en rose” to her own quite capable accompaniment.
For their first selections, Fleming and Graham sang duets by Saint-Saëns, followed by a selection of more impressive duets by Fauré, in which the blend of voices proved most effective. Here and throughout the evening, the audience did not wait until the end of a set, but instead applauded after each song. Pianist Bradley Moore, who is an assistant conductor at the Metropolitan Opera as well as an experienced soloist and accompanist, offered one solo, Debussy’s “Clair de lune,” with a nicely muscular urgency to drive the appropriately dreamy mood. Fleming returned for her Debussy chansons and “Les Filles de Cadix,” but in all her solos, she seemed less at her ease than Graham did in hers. This is perhaps to be expected: the mezzo-soprano has practically trademarked Hahn’s music in her own name, and her set of four songs demonstrated yet again that, even though she recorded an album of Hahn in 1997, her ongoing exploration of this material has yielded ever-greater nuance and insight.
From Fleming’s perspective, the following duets proved more rewarding, though they contained only one real surprise, a song for two sisters from Messager’s Les p’tits Michu that revealed a winning playfulness in the soprano’s interpretation — and the song echoed the personae that Fleming and Graham embodied in their spoken material, with Graham taking the more extroverted approach. Berlioz’s “La Mort d’Ophélie” becomes a kind of Greek chorus when sung as a duet, and the program concluded with two of opera’s greatest hits, the Hoffmann Barcarolle and the “Duo des fleurs” from Lakmé. These numbers may not have entailed any interpretative challenges for either singer, but together they created a haunting effect, as Fleming spun out high notes and Graham tapped once again into her warm sensuality.
For encores, the singers joined in two more familiar duets, “Guarda, sorella” from Così fan tutte (“An opera we’ve never sung together, but should have,” they observed) and the lullaby from Hänsel und Gretel. These numbers bookended Graham’s “La Vie en rose” and Fleming’s account of one of the Chants d’Auvergne, altogether her most gratifying solo of the evening.
This performance was simulcast by the New York radio station WQXR on its website; it’s to be hoped that a studio recording will result, as well. Future programs in Fleming’s “Perspectives” series include a concert performance of André Previn’s A Streetcar Named Desire, which was written for her, on March 14; a concert with Alan Gilbert and the New York Philharmonic, to include a world premiere of a vocal-orchestral piece by Anders Hillborg, on April 26; and a Viennese program, “Window to Modernity,” on May 4. Photo Richard Termine