A mutual opera fan and I were discussing the pressing issue of "Diva Recitals" the other day. Do we really need another recording of a Diva singing arias which every single Diva since time in recording history has already sung and recorded? How many "O mio babino caro's" can any single collection handle? On the strength of this recording, I have to answer: "Bring on the Dancing Divas." Let's start with the repertoire: with the possible exception of Manon's first act arietta and the aria from Verdi's "Simon Boccanegra" every opera fan is likely to have at least four different recordings of the arias on this disc readily at hand. These pieces have been done to death. Why would anyone with the international stature of Renee Fleming wish to record them? The answer lies simply in artistry. When listening to this recital, one aspect stands out even above the stature of the singer: the sheer artistry of Sir Charles Mackerras and the London Philharmonic. Together they breathe life into the music, far beyond what might be expected. Listen to the incredible detail in Butterfly's famous aria and the music seems almost new. This quality never falters throughout and can indeed be described as phenomenal, as is the quality of the sound recording. Be that as it may, however, the disc is yet another vehicle for a star singer and Fleming rises to the occasion brilliantly. Unlike her "Beautiful Voice" disc, which was really too much of a vehicle for the title, Fleming here brings something special to every character and begs the question: is there anything this woman cannot do at the moment? Verismo opera has certainly not been her trademark, yet she takes to it as if to the manner born. For me the "Adriana Lecouvreur" aria alone is worth the price of the disc and the rest of the Italian inculsions are not far off. She has the uncanny ability to capture character within a few notes. This is no empty "Fleming sings Fleming" experience - rather it is a collection of characters brought to life by the same artist. The French repertoire is closer to what we know she is singing at the moment. Her "Manon" cries out for a complete recording, although this is unlikely, given the recent issue on EMI with Pappano and the Alagnas. The rendition of Michaela's aria from "Carmen" has to be the most exquisite in living memory and Gounod's Juliette is suitably rendered: not just another display of waltzing coloratura. For the final three tracks Fleming turns to "bel canto", where so many singers are often discovered as "bel cannot". Verdi's "Simon Boccanegra" does not fit exactly into this mould, but Amelia's aria certainly calls for pure "bel canto" singing. Norma's infamous "Casta Diva" is sung masterfully and raises serious questions about a future assumption of this role by Fleming. Why was the cabaletta not recorded, though? As a suitably jaunty finale she sings the famous Bolero from "I Verspri Sicilliani" in its original French guise and includes a perfectly edible top E to round off proceedings. "Brava!" I scream. "More!" For the devoted fans this disc proves that we are not misguided in our devotion: wonderful things are happening to the Fleming voice, such as the added colours in the middle and bottom range. She also proves that her lyric coloratura abilities are beyond question - where have you heard such wonderful trills recently, apart from Gruberova? Above everything else, though, this recording offers a perfect introduction to the standard soprano repertoire for people who might as yet be unfamiliar with it. You'd have to search far and wide for anything better.
I don't care for recital discs -- only very rarely does the singer characterize as well as sing, and the result often is that it all sounds the same, even when the voice is lovely. Anna Netrebko comes to mind -- fully engaged on stage, but a bit anonymous for all her fine singing in recitals like this. Renee Fleming has the gift of individualizing what she's singing, and since she has a beautiful voice, listening to her is a special pleasure. We know too that most of the stuff we hear on this disc will not be sung by her in complete recordings or in performance. Who would pay her to sing Musetta or even Nedda, Liu, and Lauretta? But she brings these young women to life, and sings their not-so-easy music with total command. Her technique is so solid that even awkward phrasing and intervals are always accommodated to expression and a musical line. Then the darkness of her Butterfly is most touching -- this is not a Butterfly who is at all sure that things will go well! Her Manon is likewise alive, and the jittery excitement of "Je suis encore" is especially effective. I liked too her "Io son l'umile ancella." She's proud, but this is an Adriana who knows what her art is costing her. All in all, it's quite an amazing recital for a singer still associated with Mozart and Handel! But we have to remember that she's a great Marschallin and Desdemona too. Is she a Norma? Probably not, but she sings "Casta Diva" with great beauty and security -- much better than Milanov, say. Mackerras is an ideal partner throughout, and the sound is fine. Renee Fleming is a great singer and a great singing actress, and we're fortunate that she brings the qualities of both to a rectal of chestnuts like this.