I don't know where to begin. Renée Fleming has rendered me speechless for one whole week. Me, silent? Not in a million years. I, who grew up in Ceauşescu's Romania, have never learned the meaning of the word. Until about a week ago.
I had the misfortune of listening to an advance copy of Ms. Fleming's upcoming CD, unimaginatively titled Verismo (why not: "Blood and Guts," or even: "Renée sings Verismo" might have added more flair to the album's title, but never mind. . .). Listening to it nearly killed me. First off, the album's sedate cover strikes me as totally lacking in imagination. I expected La Fleming to pose à la Beverly Sills with snakes for hair and monstrous makeup. Instead, I was assaulted by a smiling, badly-gowned Renée. A recycled photo at that! Which is baffling, for isn't she "supposed to be" Decca's premier, best-selling, Grammy-winning house artist? So why did Decca all of a sudden become frugal with her? But this is beside the point. Her singing? Yes, I was just getting to that. Before I do so, I just want to throw this out there: I'm not doing this because I'm jealous of La Fleming--far, far, far be it from me to be envious of anybody named Renée. (Or Anna. Or Karita. Or Natalie for that matter.) I am merely venting out what's in my heart. All right, let's get this over with. Fleming's singing is utterly atrocious in verismo. Not even my favorite conductor, Marco Armiliato, could mask or dissimulate the fact how "wrong" her voice sounds. The quality of her voice, I must admit, remains lovely, if a tad bit syrupy and frothy, but this repertoire is simply wrong for her soprano, the cajoling timbre of which makes verismo sound like a Brahms lullaby. (Imagine in your ears Astrid Varnay recording a disc of flagrantly sweet Massenet arias: see what I mean?!) What's worse, her legions of fans (who, by the way, are never fans of mine) have been waxing upon her lavish praise; some of them are even comparing their beloved soprano to giants like Magda Olivero and Renato Scotto. They might as well compare an exquisite marquise-cut Tiffany solitaire to a factory made cubic zirconia one buys at JC Penney! Further, she has gotten into my territory without permission with her jazz-inflected, scoooops galore rendition of one of my signature roles, Magda from La Rondine--with my preferred boytoy of choice, Jonas Kaufmann, to boot! Listening to her sing the famous quartet with J. K. and the chorus--the one that my voice Puccini seemed to have in mind when he sat down to compose it--made me cringe in horror and disgust. She sings it as though she were belting out the hair-raising trio from Nabucco: the oddest sounds come out of her mouth, like she's from another species, like Ghena Dimitrova inhaled helium or something. I must say that she retains a strong technique from time to time, and is able to produce moments of pure rapture, at will, whenever she finds it necessary to caramelize a phrase, but as an artist she says absolutely nothing with her instrument. Where's the anguish? the despair? the frustration and longing she is supposed to be conveying in gems like Zaza's gut-wrenching finale, or Mimi's pair of soaringly beautiful arias? Her singing is devoid of a real and authentic emotion that one expects from this red-hot music. She has virtually no understanding of what really goes on inside the hearts and minds of these brave heroines she has misguidedly chosen to tackle. Violence, crime, starvation, unrequited love, et al., are main ingredients of the boiling stew that is verismo. On several occasions on this CD, she sounds as though she is about to break into Manon's jovial, innocent Gavotte any minute. Verismo singing must be suffused with a sexual glow: Fleming is neither sensual nor voraciously sexual (like me)--on or off the stage. For me, she has always been mortifyingly dowdy. It even trickles down into her singing. May I remind her, too, that a yelp, a scoop, a most annoying howling effect that hopes to masquerade as terror DO NOT, for a blink of an eye, make for a compelling characterization. It accomplishes nothing, yet only adds to the stigma that opera is fake and silly and preposterous.