BWW Reviews: Renee Fleming and Susan Graham Delight Carnegie Hall, 1/27
There are certain occasions when even the most jaded New York audience can just smile and say thank you. The duo recital by soprano Renee Fleming and mezzo-soprano Susan Graham Sunday night at Carnegie Hall was just such an occasion. Given that both divas have sold out Carnegie Hall as individual performers, the dual recital was something very special indeed. The performance, the next-to-last stop on a six-city tour, was pure joy from start to finish for audience and performers alike. In fact, the lively, playful banter from and between the two long-time friends and colleagues (they actually first met in 1988 when each won the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions) gave the entire evening the feel of a small cabaret show - for nearly 3,000 of their closest friends.
The performance featured the work of eight different composers from the belle époque of Paris and invited the audience on a light-hearted, but informative, tour of the art song literature of the era. This territory is not unfamiliar to either singer as both have received the "Chevalier de la Légion d'honneur" from the French government in recognition of their expertise in French repertoire, and both have numerous releases of French material in their catalogues. The ever-shrinking number of serious song recitals (especially French art songs) made the performance all the more precious. But to pull off such an evening, artists of the highest caliber, at the top of their game are a critical ingredient. Fleming and Graham were more than up to the task, performing with lush tone and unparalleled interpretive skills; showing that these crusty old French bon-bons deserve to have life breathed into them once again, especially the often overlooked and rarely performed French duet literature.
The evening was much more than a mere recital, it was a journey to another place and time, as the vast Stern Auditorium was transformed into an intimate Parisian salon from a century ago, and virtually every bon-bon served was more ravishing than the last. Of course, no evening of French art songs would be complete without equally magnificent designer gowns, neither Fleming nor Graham disappointed on that count; both looking gorgeous. While certainly glamorous, the cutting edge haute couture did look ever so slightly out of place in an evening that was otherwise decidedly "retro."
The evening began with a crusty old recording of the legendary Mary Garden, the original "Sarah Bernhardt of opera" and reigning diva of the belle époque, speaking about her trials and tribulations with French composers (she created the role of Melissande for Debussy and Cherubin for Massenet). She clearly set the tone and the context for the evening: frank and brash. In addition to Mary Garden, the great Sybil Sanderson was also alluded to, as Ms. Fleming made special note of just how many classic French opera roles were created by and especially for American divas.
The first half began with a number of duets by Saint Sans, each punctuated by a brief introduction. The informational tidbits felt stiff and a bit "rehearsed" compared to the casual and funny interplay between the singers and the relaxed and florid singing. The trio of Saint Sans works was followed by a series of lovely Faure melodies, including an exquisite reduction for soprano and mezzo of the choral version of the well-known "Pavane in F-sharp minor."