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4.8.06

Renée Fleming Thunderously Received at Wolf Trap

Record heat in the D.C. area was probably to blame for Wolf Trap not being sold out – despite everyone's favorite, Renée Fleming, performing on Thursday night. The threat of thunderstorms may not have helped either – and as if to reinforce that there is a certain inherent risk in opting for outside seating, a thunder slowly shuddered into Paul Dukas’s Sorcerer’s Apprentice. The performance of the Summer-NSO led by Emil de Cou was beautifully and dramatically accentuated by lightning – although the enjoyment of that show was probably predicated on having a claim to seats under the Filene Center’s roof.

Mickey in the RainPaul Dukas’s claim to fame, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, is more likely to evoke memories of Mickey Mouse frantically trying to control the flood his controlled-uncontrollable broom-servants create, rather than Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s poem upon which it is all based, Der Zauberlehrling. But it couldn’t have been a more appropriate scene to think of as the sluices of heaven opened wide. Amidst more thunder and lightning, the music started to be the soundtrack to the excitement outside and accompanied by thuds from the speaker systems and flickering lamps, the work finished only seconds before a total power outage left the stage and audience in the dark, causing the audience only to redouble its cheers. At least on the inside, the audience’s mood was not the least (forgive me) dampened… despite the spray being felt by even those sitting in the very center of the orchestra seating. NSO Wolf Trap Festival conductor Emil de Cou meanwhile used the forced intermission to hone his already considerable comedic stand-up skills – much to the amusement of the crowd.

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C. Debussy, Orchestrations, E. de Cou / SFBSO
The weather calmed down appropriately for the beautiful calm and serenity of Debussy’s Clair de Lune as orchestrated by André Caplet. (It is something of a de Cou specialty; he was also the first one to record this work, available on a disc with other Debussy orchestrations played by the San Francisco Ballet Orchestra.) Electricity was restored, more or less, even if now part of the audience, instead of the orchestra, was illuminated by the selectively functioning spotlights.

After that, all radiating was done by Renée Fleming, who sang Samuel Barber’s gorgeous Knoxville: Summer of 1915 – and continued in her luminous way even after the spotlight on her went back into remission, leaving her to sing out of the dark. The performance was a good one, with her passionate, creamy voice (in live performance always with fewer of the unfortunate Renéeisms that can turn her sound into stilted, unnatural mush) aptly recreating the mood of sedated Tennessee summer evenings. The harsh metallic hue given to her voice by the (otherwise discrete) amplification was a small drawback. The orchestra, more in accompanying position than partnership, did its job as well as could have been expected – especially with half of them barely able to decipher the notes in front of them. To hear the audience enthusiastic about 20th-century orchestral songs, apart from the popular Richard Strauss fare, only added value.

Other Reviews:

Joan Reinthaler, Dark Victory for Fleming and the NSO (Washington Post, August 5)
Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloë Suite No. 2 opened the second half – lights fixed and adjusted – and murmured along gaily and enjoyably. It was here that the NSO and de Cou showed their best and most engaged playing of the night. A gracious and amusing speech by Ms. Fleming (bad and successively worse weather seems to follow her to the Wolf Trap – for her next appearance there she demanded a blizzard) preceded Francesco Cilea’s “Poveri fiori” from Adriana Lecouvreur and the soprano evergreens “O, mio babbino caro” and “Vissi d’arte” of Puccini. Less edge from the microphone allowed for a consequently better sound. Classics as these arias are, they were upstaged by what followed. Saving the best for last, as Ms. Fleming often does (no concert of hers without it, thankfully), Richard Strauss’s “Morgen” was the finest work to be heard and presents what Renée Fleming was and still is best at. An affected, slurred, and pulled-around “Summertime” made up for qualitative shortcomings in general popularity, as did “I could have danced all night” with (surprisingly tuneful) audience participation. In all, Maestro de Cou offered a keen and sensitive accompaniment from his instrument, the orchestra, allowing Fleming to milk every phrase exactly to her heart’s content. Flotow’s “The Last Rose of Summer” sent the audience back into a pleasantly cooled down night, and Ms. Fleming home with all the applause she could have wished for.

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