Exactly one year ago, Renée Fleming sang an all-Strauss programme at the Grosses Festspielhaus in Salzburg and, wrapped in a half-hectare of black tulle, brought the house down.
The concert is captured in all of its harmonic richness and roiling emotion in high-definition video and audio in a new DVD issue from Opus Arte/Unitel Classica (you can find all the details here).
Joining Fleming onstage in a golden triumvirate are the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra led by Christian Thielemann. The granite-faced, laser-eyed German shows why he is considered to be a master interpreter of the music and operas of Richard Strauss.
It would have been nice if Fleming had sung even more, but she used her time on stage beautifully. After warming up noticeably while singing Befreit (Freed), Fleming unleashed her expressive voice and well-honed dramatic flair on three more Lieder: Winterliebe (Winter Love), the ethereal Traum durch die Dämmerung (Twilight Dream, in an orchestration by Robert Heger) and Gesang der Apollopriesterin (Song of the Apollo Priestess).
Fleming capped her contribution to the concert with “Mein Elemer!” an aria where Arabella considers her various suitors before taking off for a Viennese ball at the end of the opera’s first act. Fleming has sung the role many times and, as with the Lieder, has mastered the art of merging attention to nuance with the sweeping musical gesture.
Here is a singer who knows exactly what she is doing and how she is going to do it — and then makes it look as effortless as sharing a coffee with her best friend.
The same holds true for Thielemann (minus the best-friend demeanor).
His deft handling of the thick and complex score to Strauss’s 1915 Alpine Symphony is a wonder. Rather than write separate movements, the composer wove together 22 episodes in his final extended tone poem depicting 24 hours in a hike up and down an Alpine hillside.
A conductor can dip their baton like a ladle into this thick orchestral stew at any given moment and come up with a different combination of vegetables and piece of meat. But Thielemann is steadfastly particular, carefully emphasizing the recurrence of motifs and modulating the dynamics of 125 instrumentalists with an iron will emanating from his eyes.
Thielemann allows himself the slightest hint of a smile after the final chord dies away, very discreetly letting his orchestra know that they did a beautiful job.
Unfortunately, as with so many classical DVDs, there isn’t an extra in sight; it’s just the 90-minute concert. The booklet’s notes do not provide texts or translations to the songs, either.
For a taste of this Swiss treat, here is Fleming singing Winterliebe from the Salzburg concert: