Over the past 16 months, we’ve all fantasized about what it would be like to re-emerge from our locked and locked lives. For some, the ideal post-pandemic experience would be to go to a concert and experience, in joy and community, a great artist giving us a memorable performance.
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Certainly, the era of COVID-19 is not yet over. But on Thursday, those who saw soprano Renée Fleming perform at the Irvine Barclay Theater might apologize for thinking we’ve just passed a milestone. The event, presented by the Philharmonic Society, was the first public concert at the site since the start of the pandemic.
Fleming and his accompanist, Inon Barnatan, performed to an audience of around 450 in the 750-seat venue – ticket sales were limited to maintain a semblance of social distancing. There were other precautions as well: Wearing a mask was mandatory until you sat down and the bar sold packaged and pre-made cocktails.
But nothing could dampen the enthusiasm of this crowd. It was oddly heartwarming to see people in their sixties and sixties acting like school children after the last day of class. On a perfect summer’s evening, the square in front of the Barclay was filled with kisses, hugs and lively conversations. Even the rising full moon seemed prepared for the occasion: it was a very large strawberry moon, the last super moon of the year.
Fleming, 62, long ago achieved the kind of status accorded only a handful of classical music superstars. In 2001, the New Yorker claimed that she had arrived at “that place beyond the opera house where, every two decades or so, a classical singer is granted something like pop fame. star ”. She performed the national anthem at the 2014 Super Bowl, and she’s probably the only opera star who can sing in the Elvish language (a skill she learned for “Lord of the Rings” from Peter Jackson).
Fleming’s schedule on Thursday was very varied, from his expected favorites (Richard Strauss, Giuseppe Verdi, Franz Schubert) to modern masters from various musical worlds (Maria Schneider, Joni Mitchell, John Corigliano).
Fleming has always had an easy relationship with his fans, but on Thursday that bond was electric. She seemed as happy as the audience was on her return to the stage, telling a few stories about how she coped with the isolation (apparently she’s become a formidable gardener).
Naturally, the evening was tinted with the complex knot of feelings that we have shared over the past year.
Fleming kicked off the a cappella concert with Corigliano’s setting to music of Kitty O’Meara’s iconic viral poem on pandemic management which was written when he debuted in March 2020. In the program he was supposed to complete the show. first half of the show, but Fleming chose to start with that – a wise move. He set the mood perfectly with his message of hope, loss and perseverance.
At an age when many singers are retiring (or should be considering retiring), Fleming’s voice shows few signs of weakness. She’s more careful with her material now, and her soft, golden lyrical soprano tone has turned a darker shade. But overall, Fleming’s voice shows the care she has taken to her career over the past four decades. (Without a doubt, genes have something to do with it too.)
Among several highlights was “Salce, salce – Ave Maria” by “Otello” by Verdi. Desdemona is one of Fleming’s most famous opera roles. You didn’t have to understand Italian to feel Desdemona’s grim acceptance of his impending death.
The concert’s most surprising triumph was a cycle of songs by Schneider, a multi-genre, Grammy-winning musician trained in jazz as well as classical music whose compositions defy easy categorization.
“Winter Morning Walks”, written for soprano Dawn Upshaw, are perfect works for an audience emerging from isolation: intimate, reflective, depicting crystalline moments that capture the magic of everyday experience. Fleming has given the five clips the subtlety they need, blending sadness and joy in a celebration of everyday pleasures. Barnatan was at his best here, effortlessly performing unusual piano techniques (damping and plucking the strings) and producing sounds as exotic as they are beautiful.
Fleming was equally strong with more familiar material, bringing creativity to overplayed standards such as “An Sylvia” and “Die Forelle” by Schubert. One of her specialties is creating moments of insight by taking surprising departures from the standard interpretation and using her superb acting skills to bring out nuances of character in lyrics we thought we were familiar with. Barnatan, one of the greatest accompanists in the world, is an ultra-sensitive listener, although he seemed a little less comfortable with Handel than Schubert and Strauss.
The only small disappointment of the evening was “Both Sides Now” by Joni Mitchell. The arrangement Fleming chose was slow and a bit overworked, and the accompaniment seemed a bit precious. But it’s always fun to hear him give a Flemish twist to a pop classic.
Fleming offered us a reminder: “O mio babbino caro” by Puccini, universally adored, from “Gianni Schicchi”. It was the perfect Valentine’s Day for the adoring crowd, who left conscientiously masked but carried by a feeling we had almost forgotten: the thrill of sharing a great concert.
Paul Hodgins is the founding editor-in-chief of Arts & Culture at Voice of OC. He can be contacted at [email protected]