An evening with Renee Fleming and Susan Graham


We had a most enjoyable evening Thursday at the Lyric subscriber appreciation concert recital given by Renee Fleming and Susan Graham, accompanied by the pianist Bradley Moore. Together, they transported us back in time, to La Belle Epoque. The cavernous Lyric stage was transformed into an intimate salon, with artfully chosen projections of period-appropriate paintings from the Art Institute of Chicago as a backdrop. Between carefully selected French pieces, we were treated to old scratchy recorded interviews with one such belle epoque diva of the era, Mary Garden. Fleming and Graham also bantered with the audience, while painting for us the salon life at the turn of the 20th century.

Susan Graham’s creamy tone carried effortlessly to the nose-bleed seats where we were perched, but for the first half of the performance, Renee Fleming seemed a little under-powered and breathless. Her voice was secure and strong in the second half of the recital though, and we treated to a musical display of fireworks from these two down to earth divas. Most of our favorite songs of the evening were in the second half, beginning with Susan Graham’s selection of Reynaldo Hahn songs. Graham later took a page from Hahn’s book when she strutted out on stage with a cigarette in her mouth, and settled herself at the piano to much appreciative giggles from the audience. She then accompanied herself on the piano as she sang the most touching rendition of La Vie en Rose I’ve ever heard.

Other highlights: Berlioz’s La mort d’Ophilie (the death of Ophelia), a soaring, poignant and vivid piece; the comical Blanche-Marie et Marie-Blanche; and of course the ever popular flower duet from Lakme.

Hilarious conversation between the two about their 6-city recital:

Chicago Classical Review writes:

Fleming and Graham team up for a beguiling homage to La belle époque
Fri Jan 25, 2013 at 12:27 pm

It’s hard to conceive of a more natural vocal partnership than soprano Renée Fleming and mezzo Susan Graham. The American superstars are of similar age and tastes, and their vocal profiles boast more similarities than differences. It’s fitting that the program for their six-city tour, presented in fabulous style Thursday night at the Lyric Opera, emphasizes art song over opera, where competing styles can generate the sparks so essential to the dramatic stage.

Both have made French repertoire a focal point of their careers, and this wealth of experience and fluency bore handsome dividends. The guiding principal of their program is the celebration of the belle époque, the period around the turn of the 20th century during which the salon was the epicenter of French culture. Slides of French paintings and artist portraits were projected overhead, and the stage was tastefully adorned with potted plants, twin chandeliers, and ornate period music stands. Dark, understated gowns in the first half gave way to flashier couture after intermission (think silver Susan and red Renée).

No doubt a major draw of these Parisian affairs was the catty gossip and pithy bon mots tossed about between musical numbers, and the divas came ready with a wealth of period anecdotes, naught and otherwise. Their banter also served to illustrate the combustible partnerships of the programmed composers with their vocal muses, many of them American sopranos.

A trio of featherweight and stylishly turned Saint-Saéns duets opened the program before a set of works by Fauré began a move to more familiar repertoire. The various instrumental versions of the latter’s Pavane may be better known than this vocal duet, but the duo’s deft, pastel-hued delivery lent the popular tune a surprising measure of dramatic conflict. Tarantella showcased the singers’ formidable technique, complete with rapid-fire roulades tossed off with ease.

The duo dove into “Blanche-Marie et Marie-Blanche” from André Messager’s Les p’tites Michu with the giddy highjinks of teenage girls at a pajama party. At the opposite end of the musical spectrum, Berlioz’s La mort d’Ophélie was a searing, darkly-hued portrait of love gone tragically awry.

Pianist Bradley Moore was their sensitive accompanist as well as soloist in a lithe, poetic account of Debussy’s evergreen Clair de lune. Even with exaggerated tempo shifts and a barely audible left hand (an acoustical quirk of the hall), the shapely reading held many delights.

As delightful as the duos were, many of the most memorable highlights came in the solo songs, where the constraints of uniformity gave way to more personalized and heartfelt readings. Fleming’s account of Debussy’s Mandoline was utterly beguiling, and one could sense the audience holding it’s collective breath during the same composer’s Beau Soir, so keen were they to soak up every hushed nuance.

Amidst the parade of standards by the top rank of French composers, it was refreshing to hear Graham earnestly plug the lesser-known Reynaldo Hahn. Not all will share her enthusiasm for his well-crafted but single-dimensional songs, but Graham’s illuminating delivery of the texts by Paul Verlaine and other poets was entrancing. Her fans will long remember her slow, seductive entrance, cigarette dangling, for a tantalizing encore of the Edith Piaf standard La Vie en Rose by Monnot and Guglielmi, ably accompanying herself on the concert grand.

Other encores included perfectly groomed duets from Mozart’s Cosí fan tutte (“Ah, guarda sorella”) and Humperdinck’s Hansel and Gretel. Given the evening’s emphasis on intimacy over fireworks, the latter’s “Evening Prayer” was especially fitting.


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