Review: Renée Fleming Dazzles with VOICE OF NATURE: THE ANTHROPOCENE at Symphony Hall

Soprano joins with pianist Inon Barnatan for Celebrity Series of Boston appearance

By: Feb. 08, 2024
Review: Renée Fleming Dazzles with VOICE OF NATURE: THE ANTHROPOCENE at Symphony Hall

With her sold-out Celebrity Series of Boston performance this past Sunday at Symphony Hall, Renée Fleming offered a splendid reminder, although none is needed, of why she is widely considered to be the preeminent American soprano of today.

Fleming opened with a lilting a cappella rendition of “Pretty Bird” by bluegrass legend Hazel Dickens, and followed with several selections from “Voice of Nature: The Anthropocene,” her Grammy Award-winning 2021 album. Performed against a filmed backdrop of specially chosen National Geographic Society footage, and accompanied by award-winning classical pianist Inon Barnatan, the set included songs by Rachmaninoff (“Presto,” from “Moments Musicaux”), Handel (“Care Selve,” an aria from “Atalanta”), Björk (“All Is Full of Love”), Kevin Puts (“Evening”), and Howard Shore (“Twilight and Shadow,” from the 2001 film “The Lord of the Rings”).

In past interviews about “Voice of Nature,” Fleming has said that the music “begins in a time almost two centuries ago, when people had a profound connection to the beauty of nature. Now we have reached a moment when we see all too clearly the effects of our own activity, and the fragility of our environment.”

With that in mind, the program’s first half concluded with the well-chosen “What the World Needs Now Is Love,” with Fleming bringing her own unique uplift to the 1965 pop hit by composer Burt Bacharach and lyricist Hal David made famous by Dionne Warwick, Fleming’s fellow 2023 Kennedy Center Honors recipient.

Returning to the stage following an intermission, having changed from a shimmering pale purple to a copper-colored sequined gown given added glamor by bare shoulders,  Fleming received the audience’s loud clapping with good humor.

“I still love gown applause,” she said with a broad smile. Of the high-collared first gown, she joked, “Every time I put that one on, I think, ‘Barbie’s mother.’”

Along with glorious renderings of selections from Fauré (“Au bord de l’eau”) and Ravel (“Jeux d’eau”), Fleming was nothing short of magnificent on “O mio babbino caro,” from the 1918 opera “Gianni Schicchi” by Giacamo Puccini, with libretto by Giovacchino Forzano. The aria has been sung by many of the world’s greatest sopranos, Maria Callas and Montserrat Caballé among them. On Sunday at Symphony Hall, however, another made it all her own with breathtaking clarity and thrilling high notes.

Before concluding her memorable afternoon in Boston, Fleming – who earned a Tony Award nomination as Nettie Fowler in the 2018 revival of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Carousel” – returned to the lighter side of her varied repertoire for “The Diva,” a song by Tony-nominated composer and lyricist Andrew Lippa, written as a duet for Fleming and Vanessa Williams and performed by the pair at a concert welcoming live audiences back to The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C., on September 26, 2020.

The classical music luminary cut loose on lyrics like “I am the Diva, I’ve got the goods. I am the Diva of an undetermined age,” and “How many people are compared with centuries of sopranos most people have never heard?”

As an encore, Fleming offered up one more high note – a spell-binding and clearly heartfelt rendition of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” a moving musical coda that had the audience singing along.

Photo caption: Pianist Inon Barnatan and soprano Renée Fleming in concert at Symphony Hall on Sunday, February 4, 2024. Photo credit: Robert Torres/Celebrity Series of Boston.