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REVIEW: Intimacy with Calibration Issues in Renée Fleming Recital (Schubert Club)

Renée Fleming’s recital at the Schubert Club this evening was a success well before it opened. All-told, the recital sold out four different ways – when ticket sales first opened, after standing tickets were added, after onstage tickets were added, and when all returned tickets (a practice in which ticket holders who are unable to attend donate their tickets for resale) were sold again. Business-wise, the decision to engage the international opera star was a success to rival last year’s multiply sold-out opener with violinist Joshua Bell.

One of the reasons that demand to see Ms. Fleming was so high is the singer’s 2014 announcement that she is considering withdrawing from the stage. While she is still at the peak of her singing prowess, garnering rave reviews and critical praise in appearances at a series of gala openings this season, by her own words the time to catch her onstage is now limited. Another factor is audience familiarity – this was her fourth appearance in the International Artist Series, and following on high-profile engagements such as singing at the 2013 Super Bowl and receiving the National Medal of Arts. That her performances are of dependably high caliber is not in any sort of dispute.

At the same time, however, attendees at Wednesday’s performance might question the choice of repertoire in the space. Many of the art songs on the program were intimately delivered in a manner that sounded hollow in the Ordway’s expanse – intensely intimate in the first few rows, for sure, but increasingly distant and hard to hear as you progress further back. The opera arias that she delivered, including the final encore “O mio babbino caro,” were full and crystal clear as they filled the hall, but acoustically the more intimate selections seemed miscalibrated for the space.

Therein lies the problem: the demand to hear Ms. Fleming sing was clearly more than enough to fill the Ordway’s Music Theater, while the majority of the repertoire was more appropriate to the smaller Concert Hall, in which sound travels very differently. It’s not that art songs as a whole are unsuitable for the space, but certain types of songs and song delivery simply don’t work as well there. Patrons in prime orchestra seats reported trouble understanding the diction of the French chansons and German lieder on the first half of the program. The English lyrics of the final songs on the program fared only somewhat better, being delivered with more of a musical theater intonation.

Part of this problem involves the difference between acoustics in different spaces. Last Saturday, Ms. Fleming finished a critically praised run of Der Rosenkavalier at Boston’s Symphony Hall – a space with a superficially similar ring time (the amount of time it takes for sound to die away) to the Ordway’s Music Theater, but a much more clarified acoustic. Speaking from professional experience on and offstage in that acoustic, the same program would have had no intelligibility issues being delivered with the same intimacy in an admittedly rare acoustic like Symphony Hall. (The revamped acoustics in Orchestra Hall in Minneapolis are noticeably calibrated for orchestral use, and while generally excellent, are less finely tuned for solo singing. The Ordway’s Concert Hall acoustics are themselves calibrated first foremost for chamber orchestra.)

So where does that leave groups like Schubert Club that program artists in the space? An artist like Ms. Fleming is typically invited and chooses their own program; who is there to say, “That won’t sound as good here”? The experience of live classical music is much more than pleasant background music; the clarity of diction is an important part of the listening experience even for those who don’t speak a language. By the applause, the patrons clearly enjoyed the performance – yet the applause was very noticeably much louder and longer for the pieces which could be better heard, like the aria “L’altra notte fondo in al mare” (The other night into the bottom of the sea) from Boito’s Mefistofele. This hardly means that the programming needs to all be operatic – that would be exhausting and impractical – but some diligence to the repertoire’s appropriateness would go a long way to enabling a truly stellar performance. Some works, like Schumann’s Frauenliebe und liebe, scale up better than others when taken far beyond the salons for which they were composed.

As for specific performances: The sweetest moment in the first half was the divine performance of “Du Ring an meinem Finger,” rendered in exquisite clarity and swell by Ms. Fleming’s voice, with Hartmut Höll’s sensitive piano painting sublime shadings of sound and color. If the magic of music is in the spaces between notes, Höll must have a mean card trick at parties. In the second half, “L’altra notte fondo…” and Leoncavallo’s “Mattinata” (Morning) were the best-heard and received. “L’altra” showcased Höll’s deft touch in its dark, dramatic strains, with haunting inflections in a minature orchestra of sound. The aria also showcased Ms. Fleming’s coloratura runs in good form and a less commonly heard style. “Mattinata” was short, pretty, pleasingly rendered, and matched for the space.

For the sartorially inclined, Renée Fleming wore a dark blue gown for the first half and a resplendent, sparkling red dress in the second half. The encores were “Over the Rainbow” from The Wizard in Oz, “I could have danced all night” from My Fair Lady, and “O mio babbino caro” from Gianni Schicchi.

Basil Considine