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Monday 16 July 2012

Renée Fleming with Gergiev and the LSO


A rather disheartening way to end the season for me. The two orchestral showpieces on offer, Debussy's La Mer, and Stravinsky's Petrushka were perfectly acceptably played (the LSO rarely plays truly badly) but both felt a bit by rote, and Gergiev didn't offer anything particularly personal with either of them. I must admit that I've never seen the LSO be as responsive or play with as much energy with Gergiev as I have seen with Previn or Colin Davis. I found out recently from personal anecdotes that they feel very affectionately towards both Previn and Davis, so I wonder whether there is just a fundamental personality mismatch with Gergiev. Difficult to know if I've just caught a lot of off nights, or whether there's something in this...

The main draw of the evening was surely Renée Fleming, who sang two French song cycles that she has recently also recorded. My comments on the pieces and a review of that disc can be found here. She started with Dutilleux's song cycle Le Temps L'horlage, a poignant and quirky song cycle about time and yearning (shades of the Marschallin, Rusalka?) written especially for her. This is not a cycle that allows for much vocal display until the last song, and this was a softly shaded reading aiming mostly at text. Though always just about audible, Fleming was just hardly giving out any sound, and her trade mark endless legato seemed compromised and hard fought for. The lower notes occasionally became quite unstable timbrally and occasionally also with regards to intonation, traditionally also strengths. The last song at least brought some more fortitude in the voice, but never for sustained periods. Lacking in the voice now is the extraordinary vibrancy and beauty of timbre that it used to have, and also its rock steady technical security; all the time we feel strongly that she is shepherding her resources. She fared slightly better in Ravel Shéhérezade, but again this was a very small scale reading, and it just sounds like a completely different voice from the one it used to be. Very sad. She was quite good in her Ariadne's earlier this year, but I am now worried for her Munich Rosenkavaliers that I will be attending.

It pains me to write this because I really do believe that Fleming is the greatest singer of her generation, and certainly she is the singer (along with Callas) who has given me more listening pleasure than any other. She has talked throughout her career of the mystery of the voice, how it can just leave a singer in a very short time, and about early retirement and knowing when to retire. She has been very careful and prudent with repertoire selection for this reason, to keep the voice young and avoid damage at all costs, but age catches up with everyone sooner or later. I am sure she is only too aware of her current vocal condition, but I imagine it is much harder to actually stop singing than talk about it - emotionally, psychologically and not least financially.  Farewell dates at the Royal Opera House are being mooted for the 2016-2017 season (when she'll be 58) but I wonder how much voice will be left by then and I wonder also whether these next few years of singing will damage her legacy. Leontyne Price was still singing with unbelievable beauty at 58 (see here), but every soprano is very different - it doesn't just come down to careful vocal management, but also to genetics, hormones, mental health, self confidence, luck, and innumerable other factors.

Ultimately I can only express my unending gratitude to Renée Fleming for her voice and artistry, mercifully captured for posterity on so many wonderful recordings, which have afforded me so many hours of extraordinary pleasure. Beauty is a very fragile and ephemeral thing and one must be supremely grateful for the times it touches our lives and the ability it has to lift us above the mundane and into the numinous.


  1. Financially? I thought she was recently married to a prominent Washington lawyer.

  2. I was talking generally - not every singer gets to have the luxury to bow out gracefully and keep the public wanting more rather than questioning whether they should still be singing. She is one of the very few singers currently working who would probably be fine tomorrow if she was never able to work again.

  3. Wouldn't menopause affect the voices of the ladies? Perhaps she was just plain tired and under the weather?

  4. It certainly does, though it's sort of a taboo to mention it still, as it's such a personal matter and so bound up with so many other aspects of being a woman (hence why I just left it at "hormones" which also includes important hormonal changes caused by pregnancy which can affect the voice).

    We can hope that its just a temporary thing, but realistically if one listens to any of her performances from the last year or so (the Ariadnes have been the best) one will get an idea of her current vocal condition, remembering of course that a microphone is very kind to quiet singing.

    There are theories about Callas' early vocal decline that link it to an early onset of menopause. In general it seems to bring a drying of the vocal chords, reduction of colour and volume and coloratura facility. Though it quite obviously affects some more than others.

    Below is an interesting article on it, and includes particularly candid and poignant reminiscences from Christa Ludwig.

    "Sometimes I had the impression that my vocal cords were made of glass, they felt so fragile. Sometimes I would be afraid to sing a forte tone. There was a real fear, every day, whether the voice was there."