SUPERSTAR FLEMING BIDS FAREWELL
The opera world was surprised when superstar Renée Fleming announced her retirement from the opera stage. Her last appearance is her signature role, the Marshallin in “Der Rosenkavalier,” at the Metropolitan Opera in May. She first sang this role in 1995 at Houston Grand Opera at age 36 as a relatively young artist for the mature aristocrat. She is now 58 and still providing a lush interpretation of the aging noble lady who realizes she must let her teen-age lover go.
What was Fleming’s connection to San Diego Opera? Her debut here in 1994 delivered an artist with obvious star quality to our audience singing the role of Tatiana in “Eugene Onegin” by Tchaikovsky. She gave the naive, young country girl, wearing spectacles and buried in her literary reveries, a vulnerable charisma that she repeated with great success at the Met Opera many times.
After winning the Met Auditions in 1988, Fleming had debuts at major regional opera companies. Her stage debut at the Met was in 1991. Prior to then she appeared in a revived opera by Dvorák, “Rusalka,” at Seattle Opera. In 1995 she returned to SDO in the same opera as the water sprite who dreamily sings to the moon. She still performs that role at the Met.
San Diego Opera was deprived of a third performance when general director Ian Campbell released her from a contract for a future season in order to have her debut at La Scala Milan. I asked Ian why he would let such a popular artist go. He replied that refusal to allow an important debut would not result in any friendship for the future.
Renée Fleming did return for a gala concert in 2012 but disappointed the audience by singing a light repertoire with little opportunity to show off her famous operatic roles.
After making her debuts with major American opera companies, Fleming began her illustrious career in Europe with her debut at Salzburg in 1986. The number of roles she has performed is endless. Among the highlights are unusual, less performed operas like Handel’s “Alcina” and “Rodelinda,” “Louise,” “Thaïs” and her signature Strauss roles of “Arabella,” “Daphne” and “Ariadne.”
Taking a turn at contemporary repertory, Fleming created the role of Blanche in Previn’s “Streetcar Named Desire” at San Francisco Opera; Janáček’s “Jenůfa” at Dallas Opera; Floyd’s “Susannah” at Lyric Opera of Chicago; Ellen in Britten’s “Peter Grimes” at the Met Opera. She even tackled Eva in Wagner’s “Die Meistersinger” at Bayreuth.
I was impressed with Fleming’s diversity in roles when she appeared in a gala opening night at the Met Opera in 2008 with Levine conducting. She performed one act each from “Traviata,” “Manon” and “Capriccio” with the complete Met Opera sets. That meant in one evening she had major costume and makeup changes and sang in three different languages – Italian, French and German. That was a tour de force!
In recent years, she is often the hostess for the televised Metropolitan Opera performances, graciously greeting and interviewing the performers during intermission. She even has taken a turn at Broadway musicals.
Renée Fleming will still be a presence in the opera world with occasional recitals and public appearances for gala events and television interviews. Her opera fans still have a gold mine of recordings and her performances of Met On Demand performances.
While confirming Fleming’s La Scala 1998 debut, I found an interesting post-script story. As she explains it herself, “It was the worst night of my life.” Typical of the La Scala fickle audience, the booing began early on for her performance of Donizetti’s “Lucrezia Borgia.” In retrospect, Fleming later admitted that her bel canto style was not developed.
Traditionally, La Scala can be supercritical of the best artists. Pavarotti was showered with boos at one of his appearances. Even more drastic was the fate of Roberto Alagna, the first singer in memory to storm off the Milan stage in the middle of the performance. The boos began in his opening aria in “Aida” and continued until he left the stage. There was no second act for Alagna as the management of La Scala said he would not sing the remaining scheduled performances.
So how did the elaborate new production by Franco Zeffirelli continue? A stunned understudy, Antonello Palombi, was rushed on stage wearing jeans and a black shirt. What a debut!