After her previous forays into jazz and indie-pop to say nothing of her recent stint on Broadway as Nettie Fowler in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Carousel, it was almost inevitable that a Broadway album would be forthcoming from the world’s most glamorous soprano. Renée Fleming’s choices are shrewd and wide-ranging, embracing the contemporary and the classic in pretty much equal measure whilst demonstrating that style in this repertoire probably has more to do with attitude than technical adjustment. More, but not all.
Curbing that opulent operatic soprano, pulling back on the head-voice and dropping the centre of gravity to a more conversational tone in the middle range is key, of course, but in classic repertoire, in songs like ‘Dear Friend’ (from Bock and Harnick’s She Loves Me), ‘Till There Was You’ (from Meredith Willson’s The Music Man) and, of course, ’The Sound of Music’ her ‘legit’ soprano may need scaling back but it’s also where those songs live – and she’s home free, swooning portamento and all. It’s no accident, of course, that the leading Broadway ladies of today – Audra McDonald, Kelli O’Hara and Laura Benanti are all legit sopranos at heart.
Another ‘operatically inclined’ number is ‘Fable’ from Adam Guettel’s glorious The Light in the Piazza and if I’m going to be picky I’d say that whilst this is the 11 o’clock moment in the show – a mother letting her daughter go (something that every mother can relate to) – there is a temptation, with Fleming’s pedigree and vocal equipment, to over-egg it. Its drama is writ a little too large. The final moments, the quiet moments, pull it back inwardly and that’s where it’s most effective.
It’s interesting that the numbers in which she opts for a jazzy take feel most comfortable. Cole Porter’s ‘Down in the Depths (on the Ninetieth Floor)’ sits well for her and she’s super-happy exploring the cabaret sultriness of ‘Love and Love Alone/Winter’ from Kander and Ebb’s darkly striking The Visit. And whilst I personally wouldn’t want to jazzify one of the greatest songs ever written – Kern and Hammerstein’s ‘All the Things You Are’ – she slips nicely into its embrace.
There’s only one song that really doesn’t work – and perhaps should have been left off the album – and that’s ‘Wonderful Guy’ from South Pacific. This is where a feisty chest belt is absolutely de rigueur. The euphoric repetitions of ‘I’m in love, I’m in love’ feel like they’re vocally in ‘no man’s land’ for Fleming. Not so ‘The Glamorous Life’ from Sondheim’s A Little Night Music. Desiree is such a good fit – an ‘artiste’ whose very nature is perpetually ‘on stage’, larger than life if everything. The song works better in context, of course (like everything Sondheim wrote), but it’s a good ‘turn’ for Fleming.
My favourite tracks? Well, there are two or three she absolutely nails. So glad she included ‘Lay Down Your Head’ from the very gifted Jeanine Tesori’s Violet – a gorgeous number. Likewise ‘Unusual Way’ from Maury Yeston’s Nine. And she really gets inside the mother’s song ‘So Big, So Small’ from my favourite of the current musicals, Pasek and Paul’s Dear Evan Hansen. The song’s gentle ‘country’ inflection comes naturally to her and she and we quickly warm to the intimacy of it.
There’s a similar folksy twang to ‘August Winds’ from Sting’s The Last Ship – another cracking score – and I personally am so glad she included Andrew Lloyd Webber and Don Black’s ‘Tell Me On A Sunday’ – one of Lloyd Webber’s most beautiful and elaborate melodies married to one of Black’s most touching lyrics. I did wonder, though, why Fleming didn’t make more of that glorious phrase in the release of the song – ‘Don’t leave in silence’. It’s exactly the kind of moment where I would have expected her operatic instincts and generosity of phrase to kick in.
Familiar territory for the BBC Concert Orchestra, of course, and some lovely arrangements made especially for the album. Not everything convinces me but there’s enough here that does – and her love for the repertoire is palpable.