(Click here to view eleven pictures from the performance.)
(Click here to view four additional high-resolution pictures from the evening.)
I know that some of you may be giddy in anticipation to hear yet another blogger slam Renée Fleming, and want me to be all like, “NICE ______ YOU ______ _______”, but let me establish from this from the beginning: I like (yes, like) La Fleming. By circumstance of my numerous MET Opera mentors, I was indoctrinated at an early age, and finally saw her live in NYC in 2003 as a haunted, fragile Violetta under the direction of Gergiev. Granted, as I mature, I am able to distinguish the annoying idiosyncrasies that profoundly affect her voice...and I haven’t been able to stomach anything of hers after the legendary 2004 Conlon Rusalka DVD. But it was not even a question if I should attend or not, having submissively remembered the infamous booing incident ("va [sic] via, put*na americana"), during her high “G” of Lucrezia Borgia that sent her scurrying from La Scala in 1998.
The Renée recital was backed by Fondazione Francesca Rava with a charitable agenda of establishing medical facilities and hospice care for children of economically-depressed nations. On the Fondazione website, you can find the press release (in Italian), which ostentatiously conveys their overall tone via one piece of copy: they describe La Fleming as, "il migliore soprano al mondo", (trans: the best soprano in the world). lol. (btw, for all you “Flemmers”, you can download the official “Save the Date” pdf file here.)
Another prominent benefactor that night was couturier Gianfranco Ferré, who not only designed La Fleming’s dress for the evening, but was hosting a Gala after the recital. I was worried that the dress would be a particularly horrendous concoction, like the ones seen on certain album covers (I'm looking at you By Request! *shakes fist*), but it was nothing too improbable, and it was inspired by a typical ball gown style - with a long skirt and bosom-skimming, tight bodice - that Renée favors. The tint and fabric was a bit odd because it was that shiny, multifaceted textile that changes color in light. So it was unpredictable, and appeared both chocolate-brown and deep maroon at the same time. I really think that Ferré was going for a whole, “we must coordinate your dress with the La Scala interior” theme, because she sort of blended into her surroundings in the murky, amorphous colors that he chose. Her hair was equally drab: relatively flat, blond, parted towards one side, and lacquered. Hartmut Höll (pianista) complemented La Fleming in his dashing, full white tie (in italian, "il frac") with very long, deep tails.
For all these reasons, I made sure to dress myself accordingly in classic, and indisputably chic designers. I chose from my closet a Marios Schwab black cashmere shell dress with a pair of vintage Chanel round-toe heels, and black stockings bought at Kristina Ti. Over it went my Ann Demeulmeester double-breasted silk jacket, with a matching black silk scarf to keep at bay the chills, and my Chloe Paddington black bag.
Onto the recital! A summery first: Höll played magnificently as Renée showed-off her trademark tortured, breathless, meek, lamenting...as well as her patented missy-piggy-esque, strangled, roundhouse punches, all to an unenthused and blasé La Scala audience that, not once, uttered a single “brava”.
Interestingly, La Fleming had arranged to be basked in the glow of a peachy, pinkish spotlight. Hartmut Höll instead was replete in the flat, sterile, blue/white light, which by default, is implemented for every other normal recital. I mean, homegirl looked good, but it was like Liz Taylor and her vaseline filters.
The first flub of the night (there were only two major stress-points) started immediately with an excerpt from Mozart's Great Mass in C Minor, K427, Laudamus Te. She unfortunately went too breathless and thin towards the final crescendo - only a few bars away from the end of the movement - and her voice fell flat. However, by the next work - Schumann's Ständchen, Opus 36, Number 2 - she had returned with controlled elegance, and finished the subsequent five movements with charisma and confidence.
She took to exiting the stage after each selection was over, and would dissapear with Höll for a good twenty seconds before returning. Well, that didn’t fly with the La Scala directors, and someone clearly told her to, “cut the Diva crap”. Because after the intermission, she only exited one time during the final half.
Her trademark Měsíčku na nebi hlubokém (Song of the Moon) from Rusalka was perfect; but really, how many times do you have to sing something before you master it? She sang it in full Fleming mode, with the breathlessness of an asthmatic, and her voice breaking with emotion like dry twigs snapping. I found it gorgeous, but I always have. However, it did not elicit a single brava from the La Scala audience, and they remained nonplussed.
La Fleming then took an intermission, which was one of the longest ones I’ve ever witnessed at La Scala. Which is why, when she reappeared in the SAME EXACT DRESS (travesty!), I was incredulous. I mean, even Angela Gheorghiu changed dresses during intermission for her April 2006 recital at La Scala, and it looked like she browsed for hers at a mall bridal store! Instead, Renée reappeared in the same dress with a huge swath of maroon velvet wrapped around her shoulders. She tried to fool us with her velvet wrap! Naughty! RENÉE, I SAW WHAT YOU DID THERE!
It was during the second half of the recital that things got a bit more interesting. First there was the inexplicable “laughing spell”, which infected her during Gounod's Le ciel rayonne...Ŏ légère hirondelle. Initially, she had excelled with the scales and arpeggios. But halfway through, she dropped one of the scales so devastatingly hard, that she tried to pass it off as a dramatic laugh, and inserted a tittering giggle mid-measure. What the hell happened there? The aberration was so glaring, because prior to the giggle, she had precisely nailed each scale and note with a very confident, light touch. After the piece, while she took her applause, she egregiously smiled and laughed, leaving us all to wonder what drug she had taken before the show.
Harold Arlen's Over the Rainbow was a disaster. Her diction was clear, but she did this annoying freestyle at the end, where on the very last “I” of the final lyrics, “Why, oh why can't I?", she “broke it down”, and did one of those Mariah Carey/Christina Aguilera spontaneous “look at me, I’ve got soul” tirades. Meanwhile, the whole thing was just too reminiscent of a cruise lounge act.
After the performance, Renée stationed herself beside the piano with a small card in her hand. She began to explain in English that her Italian is not pristine so she would rather read from a prompt. She proceeded to read a handful of basic sentences in Italian, which included gratitude for the audience, the needy Hatian children, and then a final, gushing thanks to her, “grande amico Gianfranco Ferré”. heh. RF +GF = BFFFF4ev4&E&E&E!!11!
She then performed two encores: and now you musicologists are going to maim me for this omission, but it was really hard to hear what she was mumbling; so I heard composer and work, but no titles of arias. The first bis was a short aria from Wagner's Das Rheingold. It was a sweet lullaby with a short recitative in the middle. Second bis was another aria from Massenet's Manon.
La Fleming had only two curtain calls after the bis, and the crowd nonchalantly packed their programs away, and headed home. The charity gala dinner was hosted by Gianfranco Ferré at his palazzo, which resides at the beginning of Corso Garibaldi on via Pontaccio, 21. (I pulled-up the actual address on TuttoCittà, which is our version of MapQuest). The palazzo is beautiful; but honestly, I walk by it at least once a week, as we live in the same zona, and I always mistook it for a private gallery space or auditorium – certainly not as a living space.
If you happened not to be in the beneficence of Il Maestro Ferré and his cohort of Milanese glitterati, there was still hope for the tragically bourgeois transplants and expatriates to attend through the Benvenuto Milano Club: a loosely organized group of English-speaking women from an international arena, who organize coffee, outings, and general socialization for bored, listless housewives who are baffled and intimidated by their new Medieval settings. For the price of 160€ per person, ($205.00 USD), the pleasure of fretting among Ferré, Renée, and a bunch of other people with accented names, this enticing ticket could be yours. I passed, fearing that Ferré would corner me and try to swap my Marios Schwab for one of his ghastly creations.