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La Fleming's Christmas Show

When I wrote about Renée Fleming's CD Sacred Songs (see the sidebar for my comments), I noted that for a CD coming out in the Christmas shopping season it didn't have a lot of Christmas music on it. At the time, I wrote that the CD is not packaged as a Christmas CD, so I overlooked it. However, now that I have seen the PBS broadcast of La Fleming's Sacred Songs and Carols, I have to make this observation again. Christmas, like the blob, has tended to engulf a lot of sacred music that really has nothing to do with it. Yes, the Ave Maria text -- in settings by Bach-Gounod or Schubert, which are familiar favorites -- is laudatory of the mother of God, but it is not really proper to Christmas.

In the same vein, the "Laudamus te" is from the Latin Mass Ordinary (specifically, the Gloria), the most generic text of the entire Catholic service, sung at all feasts. At least the Mozart setting of that text (from the Mass in C Minor) is just generic, while the "Panis Angelicus" movement from César Franck's Mass in A Major is specifically intended for a feast other than Christmas. Thomas Aquinas composed this Latin poem (see the Latin text, and the English translation) as part of the chant texts for the new feast of Corpus Christi, and it is about the wonder of the transubstantiation, that point in the Mass when mere bread becomes, according to Catholic belief, the body of Christ. It comes at the end of the Franck Mass because the text was also traditionally sung at Benediction, when a congregation is blessed with the sign of the cross, traced by a priest holding the consecrated host in a monstrance. As a Catholic, I am happy if La Fleming wants to sing about the transubstantiation, but it has nothing to do with the feast of Christmas.


Princess Alpenrose said...

Now *that's* very interesting and important for us to know, Charles! Thanks for the little lesson.

Why do you think they (or she) sing(s) all that when it's not right for the season?

Charles T. Downey said...

Sacred things all become Christmas. It's inevitable.

Akimon Azuki said...

I don't know why would you be surprised at the wildly inappropriate choices of this Sacred special (I think Renay's lipsyncing parts alone were the final nail on the coffin of classical music); after all, the selection of the songs on Renay's album was such that I really expected Nessun Dorma or Renee's proclamined all time favourite, The Unchained Melody, to pop up at some point. However, La Fleming also does something which I find quite offensive even on such bleeding chunks "sacred" albums: she does a piece from Requiem, and not only does she go for the most abused and crossover friendly one (Faure's Pie Jesu) she also goes completely over the top in her "interpretation" (I use the term loosely in this case.) Nothing beats hearing "Dona eis requiem" at Christmas time. It is my personal peeve, Mass for the Dead movements performed for no reason other than giving Charlotte Church run for her money. We can criticize the bona fide crossover stars for doing this, but when a real opera singer like FLeming does it, it's all just fine, right?
Akimon (currently listening to very sacred and not all all Xmasy fare of Couperin's Lecons De Tenebres) (not that it is possible, but if Fleming ever touches these or Gesualdo's ones I will get medieval on her a$$)

Princess Alpenrose said...

I think you guys are right on target with those assessments. Those are REALLY good points, not to be ignored.

To be completely totally ridiculously fair, she didn't call it a Christmas album, only "Sacred Songs", but wearing the green satin dress and releasing it at this time is pretty obvious marketing ploy.

In her book, she talks about how she hired non-classical (hollywood) marketing. Perhaps that was a mistake, and the source of the inappropriate repertoire?

Charles T. Downey said...

Yes, I did not make much of this point in my review of the CD, AO. However, the TV special was unabashedly a Christmas affair. That's what I am critiquing in this post.

Anonymous said...

i am sure that ms. fleming will think about whether hiring non-classical (hollywood) marketing-personal was "a mistake" while she sits in her golden bathtub has her daily trip to the bank -- with a wheel-barow! no one here is blaming renee fleming for what she is doing; we are merely criticising her... which is our duty -- because if we didn't, there would be no opportunity cost to unabashedly selling out to the cross-over market. we are the calculated risk and if we are calculated already, we might as well try to be that well. :)


Anonymous said...

So far, all of you are just farting out of your mouths!!!

Seamus Breathnach said...

I don't think that it is the first time that Renee Fleming used transubstantiation as a subject for her enormous talent.

Indeed, her most sacred song, Russalka, is all about transubstantiation, that is, from a prayerful Waternymph to a raging loveless woman. It's a long story, but it is better told when she her Russalka interpretation is compared with another Diva's, say Anna Netrebko. Here's what I mean.


When Renee Fleming was asked in an inverview : What aria she liked to sing most, she instantly replied: ‘The Song to the Moon, from Rusalka, is my signature piece.”

I don't think people in general understand to what lengths Ms Fleming has gone to sing this song as she does. Amongst other things, she has shamelessly broken all Dvorak's rules to do so. In the process, moreover, she has left all other Divas at an unutterable disadvantage.

Moved by your review I cannot conceive of a more apt aria the very polished Ms. Fleming and the coleen from Krasnodar, Ms Netrebko.

While both Divas, Russian and American, are utterly adorable I have to confess a weakness. I am incurably in love with Anna Netrebko’s girlish ways and Russian voice. Above all I want to hear her sing Russalka at her best. As painful as it is to admit it, I feel at the moment that she has to learn some more discipline: and what’s even worse, is that she has to learn it from Ms Fleming! Indeed, she cannot learn it from any other living Diva. There is no other way! I believe that Anna Netrebko can be the best Rusalka that (n)ever lived only if she can learn something -- something very precious -- from Ms. Fleming.

What could one accomplished Diva possibly learn from another? And how are all other Divas at an unutterable disadvantage? Surely these outrageous statements require an explanation -- if not an apology!

If one might be permitted to apologise after one has explained, the apology will be better appreciated. But first one should listen to these to Divas ostensibly singing the same song:

Let us listen to Anna Netrebko first, paying special attention to the final few notes

The irritating props aside, this is really a wonderful Russalka. As ever, her voice is delicious dark chocolate. It is heavenly, glorious, full and rich, as a rose is rich. But there is the suggestion of a serious fault.It occurs in Russalka’s finish.

Now let us listen to Renee Fleming’s interpretation of this ‘same’ aria:

Anyone with an ear to hear can hear that the final cadence is quite different in each interpretation. But since the cadence is the climax, it sums up the whole song. Don’t let anyone tell you that the dog does not wag the tale: in Russalka it most assuredly does. In Fleming , therefore, all her labours are rewarded; she harvests all her previous toil and gathers into the climax the cornucopia of her emotional anxiety. Anna, however, even if blessed with unbeatable voice and a language advantage, allows her labours to be squandered: the technique of Fleming defeating by far the natural outpouring of Netrebko!

This, of course, is not Anna's fault. But, then, whose fault is it, then? How come they are singing from two identical scores that sound so unmistakeable different? Is it the fault of her minders, trainers, and teachers:

I say ‘ostensibly’, because that is what we are led to believe. And in so far as Song to the Moon, was written by Dvorak in G flat Major and in ⅜ time, that is the case. But if we examine the final cadence to the aria, we will find a remarkable contrast between that sung by Netrebko and that sung by Fleming. Here is will be observed that each of the Divas are singing from a totally different score. And so important is the final cadence that it must be explained, because it radiates meaning to the whole aria.

It has been so constructed by Dvorak that the final cadence -- indeed, the final few notes -- are the moment of the aria's great climax. To bring both climax and final cadence together is no mean feat on Dvorak’s part ; it demonstrates his genius in these matters.

But this cadential climax is also unusual in another way. In order to enhance the final impact, Dvorak allows it to dawdle close to a recitative base, then with the speed and assent of the entry to Nessun Dorma, it rockets upwards in serial momentum to the high B flat in the Soprano’s register before crashing -- diving, in fact -- to a near aquatic tonic.

It is truly wonderful stuff. But how is it claimed that Netrebko and Fleming are singing from a different score?

To understand what has happened is not easy.

if we listen to the following Divas singing the exact same aria -- say, Lucia Popp, Gabriela Benackova, Milada Subrtova and Anna Netrebko and Renee Fleming, it will soon become evident that Ms Fleming -- not Anna Netrebko -- is the odd Diva out. All the rest sing Dvorak's Russalka as directed.

Maybe the directions are the problem; for notwithstanding his emotionally powerful run in to the cadential climax, Dvorak -- perhaps for other reasons -- only devotes two thirds of a bar to the high B, or in any event devotes a very short climax and short-circuited resolution to a climax so meticulously prepared. And it sounds great. If you listen to any of the Divas -- or in this case -- to Anna Netrebko on her own, you will observe this final, almost chastising descent at the end. And you will go away with the feeling of a splendid aria well sung. It is only when you hear Renee Fleming’s singular interpretation that the dawn breaks on a more revolutionary and far-seeing interpretation.

Russalka has prayed to the Moon to send her prince of love. After her prayer, she (as in Netrebko) has submerged herself with girlish haste and almost Christian contrition. As we shall see, Ms Fleming is not so easy to get rid of; she does not submerge so readily. Indeed, she prays most fervently -- movingly, in fact -- to an indifferent moon; but, when it comes time for her to take her departure, she refuses to play the role of the fat lady, she simply will not budge ; she remains on in office unapologetically rude, revolutionary and pagan to whatever end may come!

Where all the other Divas have gone, Ms Fleming will not go --not even for Dvorak! So, when Ms Fleming (as Russalka) climaxes, there is no diving into the safety of a Czech lake. On the contrary, the earth trembles. When she reaches the high B flat in the final cadence, far from bailing out modestly, she holds on to the B flat ‘for bear life’ (if one might use such an apt expression); indeed, she holds onto it forever, which is maybe twice, three times, ten times, longer than any other Diva (including Anna Netrebko) : so long , in fact, that the orchestra have packed it in and taken their break, while Ms Fleming, still vibrating in flagrante delicioso, sees the aria through to the last syllable of its emotional obligation : ‘durchgefuert’ , as Schonberg would say! In this climax, she is the consummate creative artist - and I personally don’t care too much that she sings Czech in a Spilvill American accent: (which, incidentally , is where Dvorak spoke Czech to his Czech friends and ex-pats.)

Like a tigress protecting something primordial , and red in tooth and in claw she wrings and tears at the tune’s hind-quarters until the entire aria is purged of its anaemic short breadths. She holds the tune to its organic high promise. She compels and hurls it to its logical and emotional conclusion. There she sits on some Olympian mountain, vibrating in catharsis on B flat, and she consciously purges all that has preceded it, until the emotional charge has travelled cap-a-pe from its first to its last tonic, and has flowed into its final moonlit syllable. Only then are all issues resolved, only then is the aria allowed to close, not so much with a whimper as with a whimper after an earth-shattering, all-merciful, mother of all rumbles in the jungle!

Renee Fleming has re-written Dvorak; Dvorak would hardly recognise ‘his’ aria or understand the emotional re-orientation. In many ways,therefore, Russalka has become more Fleming than Dvorak, more American than Czech.

The only question pending is ; has she done the music and Rusalka a service?

By her prolongation of one well-chosen, emotionally strategic note, she has changed utterly the whole tone, balance, meaning, emotional discharge and general aesthetic of the Water-nymph's entire aria. In her person and in her performance a terrible scorching beauty is born!

But further, she has transformed Rusalka’ s B flat into an interminable primal scream -- a demand for human love from a cold world and a cold moon. In true pagan if not in American style, Ms Fleming commands the moon to provide her with a lover -- predating the Judeo-Christian opportunity to leap in and claim that Christianity would provide it, if the pagan moon didn’t . Of course, the one remedial belief is as cold and barren as the other, but Ms Fleming’s command , her anger, is immediate and modern. Russalka is the life-giving, life-affirming fertility of Sile-na-gig, or what many have called the ‘divine feminine’. She is not prepared to live without love -- nor will she put up with the excuses of a cold and distant moon.

Personally speaking, I can’t imagine any self-respecting Czech Water-nymph complaining about the new arrangement. It is true that Rusalka has undergone a process that is otherwise known as transubstantiation, where the nymph changes from an uncrucified but pining mermaid at the mercy of the moon to a goddess that commands the moon and the natural world to do to all women what is no more than its fertile and servile duty. From a Christian prayer to a pagan command is not an easy transition, but Ms Fleming has accomplished it in spades - so much so , in fact, that she has now made this beautiful pagan hymn unsingable in any other way except her way.

And I for one am most grateful for it.

When I hear Anna Netrebko singing Russalka from Ms Fleming’s score in her hand, I know I shall have gone to Heaven and my prayer as well as my apology shall have been heard!

Seamus Breathnach