Renée Fleming has yet to give the same concert twice in Toronto, despite the fact that she has been a regular visitor for the past two decades — and despite the fact that her fans would be perfectly happy to hear her sing the same handful of opera arias over and over again.
Such is the American soprano’s charm — and such is her constant quest for something different and challenging.
Friday night’s recital to a nicely filled Roy Thomson Hall could well have been one of her most challenging yet, delving into the tonally shadowy world of art song in early-20th century Vienna, France and contemporary America.
In the company of longtime accompanist Hartmut Höll as well as a remarkable piano specially brought in for the occasion, Fleming, in fine voice, wove a magical spell from music rarely heard in a venue of this size.
The first half of the programme was made up of Lieder by three composers with tight personal, thematic and compositional connections within the old Austro-Hungarian Empire.
Inadvertently foreshadowing next week’s opening of his opera, A Florentine Tragedy, by the Canadian Opera Company, Fleming began the recital with a set of five songs tracing the outlines in metaphor of a failed relationship by Alexander Zemlinsky.
Next came two songs by Zemlinsky’s close friend, Arnold Schoenberg, including the early song, Erwartung (Anticipation), which floated the allure of desire along on a waft of slippery, lush harmonies.
In fact, the whole recital, which then veered from the equally lush music of Erich Korngold to the mélodies of Henri Duparc, turned into a showcase where Fleming could unfurl her magical way with a musical turn of phrase and ability to shade individual vowels in a remarkable range of colours.
Duparc’s Phidylé became a model of atmosphere held together by seemingly endless legato singing.
Here was an artist in full command of her voice as well as the music itself. If, at times, Fleming’s diction faltered a little bit, it at least was done in the service of grace.
The soprano really tested herself with Deux sonnets de Jean Cassou, a mid-1950s set of two songs originally written for baritone by French composer Henri Dutilleux. Despite being fiercely difficult and modern, both Fleming and Höll burnished the score into a melancholy magnificence, before crowning the official programme with Night Flight to San Francisco, a musical setting by American composer Ricky Ian Gordon inspired by Tony Kushner’s Angels in America.
It was an emotional peak that left everyone — including Fleming herself, it seemed — wanting more. She obliged with three encores: “Mariettas Lied” from Die tote Stadt, by Korngold, “I Feel Pretty,” from Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story, and “Vissi d’arte,” from Giacomo Puccini’s Tosca.
It was a perfect, tidy package of a concert, satisfying every possible craving, and displaying every mood.
Höll was the ideal English-butler accompanist — being exactly in the right place, at the right volume, every time.
The Steingraeber & Söhne piano also deserves special mention. The expensive, handmade German instrument was much more discreet sounding than the typical concert Steinway, and its tone had a clear, yet dark, quality that was the sonic equivalent of a 25-year-old peaty single-malt Scotch.
People don’t usually think of matching the sound of a particular piano with the repertoire on a programme, but this coice of instrument turned out to be an inspired complement to some very serious — and very satisfing — musicmaking.