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Fleming connects with audience at stirring Pittsburgh show

| Wednesday, Feb. 19, 2014, 7:33 a.m.

Soprano Renee Fleming was treated as a returning hero when she stepped on stage at Carnegie Music Hall in Oakland shortly after 8 p.m. Tuesday for a benefit concert to help Pittsburgh Opera celebrate its 75th anniversary season.

Fleming, a star at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City and other top opera houses, played to the largest audience she ever has on Feb. 2 when she gave a flawless performance of the National Anthem before the Super Bowl.

The Indiana native has been dubbed “the people's diva” and showed why during the 90-minute recital. She puts on no airs. She relates to the audience through comments which have both a sense of spontaneity and a contemporary sensibility. She commented at one point that a song text meant to be a moralizing warning actually sounded pretty good.

After singing a short concert aria by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, she asked audience members if they could see the texts and translations in the program. When she heard many people couldn't, she asked that the house lights be raised. Since she was singing in five or six languages during the recital, seeing the text isn't fussiness; it deepens involvement.

The evening's first real highlight, and there were many, was “Twilight” by Sergei Rachmaninoff. Singing in the original Russian, she captured the rapt quality of the woman's dreams in a performance beautifully supported by pianist Gerald Martin Moore.

Then, singing in Czech, she gave a haunting account of “Vendulka's Lullaby” from Bedrich Smetana's opera “The Kiss,” which is sung to a child whose mother is dead.

Although raised in Rochester, N.Y., Fleming is a native of Indiana and spoke of her Pittsburgh roots through her grandmother who had emigrated from Czechoslovakia. This served as the introduction to Antonin Dvorak's “Songs My Mother Taught Me.”

The first half concluded with three of Joseph Canteloube's wonderful Songs of the Auvergne, which she delivered with knowing directness, and the high-spirited “The Girls of Cadiz” by Leo Delibes.

German and American repertoire filled the second half, starting with “Serenade” by Richard Strauss, in which all the nuances of Fleming's vocalism — the colors and small slides and accents — served the song perfectly. She sustained the lines of Richard Wagner's “Dreams” with rich tone and expressive purpose, then tossed off Arnold Schoenberg's cabaret song “Gingerlette” with as much charm as the Delibes.

Many of Fleming's repertoire choices were amorous in orientation, such as Kurt Weill's “Foolish Heart.” Erich Korngold's “I OftenWonder,” one of her favorite songs, celebrates Vienna and being a musician. One was in English, the other in German; both totally idiomatic.

Her final set was four songs by Richard Rodgers. They, like the encores “O mio babbino caro” and “Summertime,” were beautifully sung but would have benefitted from a more direct approach.

Mark Kanny is classical music critic for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7877 or mkanny@tribweb.com.

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