An evening with three champions: Istanbul Music Festival special concert with Renée Fleming &BIFO

Schubert, R. Strauss, Mascagni, Massenet, Khachaturian, Dvorak, Gounod, Leoncavallo, Puccini, Cilea, Verdi : Renée Fleming (soprano), Borusan Istanbul Philharmonic Orchestra, Sascha Goetzel (conductor), Hagia Eirene Museum, Istanbul, 22.7.2011 (AM)

It is a stroke of genius to couple an evening highlighted by Renée Fleming’s favorite songs and arias with various overtures and intermezzi to make the concert sound almost like a made-on-the-spot opera. Congratulations to Borusan Philharmonic on the programming front right from the start.

Schubert’s ill-fated Overture ‘Die Zauberharfe’ was the evening’s opener. Composed in almost an instant, the music is undressed and not very impressive, but it shows signs of Schubert’s early development in orchestration – particularly in contours and sudden contrasts. The sudden contrasts unfortunately got lost somewhere between the poor acoustics of the Hagia Eirene hall and the orchestra’s lackluster performance. Schubert’s music did not flow, but instead was marked by sharp punctuations and an overall stiff approach.

Renée Fleming in her pearly white dress was quick to the rescue, though. She sang three Richard Strauss lieder in rapid succession all of which were exquisite. She was playful, to the point of flirtatious in Ständchen, no. 2; fragile and delicate in Morgen no. 4 (in which the second champion of the evening, concertmaster Ms. Pelin Halkaci Akin accompanied her in the sweetest tone imaginable); and passionate in Zueignung no. 1.

The intermezzo from Mascagni’s Cavelleria Rusticana was next. Sascha Goetzel’s efforts at creating an idyllic picture went mostly unnoticed by the orchestra. There was still a palpable tautness in the overall soundscape that BIFO was somehow still unable to shake off.

Ms. Fleming then came back on stage to greet and welcome the audience, and she presented the two Massenet arias she was going to sing next. The first, ‘J’ai versé le poison dans cette coupe d’or’ from Cleopatra, the pitch hovering at the border of mezzo-soprano territory, was sung with many colors, but with a brooding air. ‘Dis-moi que je suis belle’ from Thaïs gave us a glimpse of Ms. Fleming’s operatic acting abilities. She creatively started the song with a deep audible sigh that gave the aria the sentiment of a woman in distress.

The second half of the evening started with Khachaturian’s 2nd Adagio from the Spartacus Suite. Although Borusan Philharmonic sounded more involved in this piece, the music still didn’t take off. The woodwinds, under Mr. Goetzel’s instructive baton, carried most of the music, but it was once again the first violinist, reinforcing the main theme every time it arrived, who was the saving grace here.

The evening continued with Renée Fleming’s arrival on stage -this time in a ravishing magenta dress, to sing Měsíčku na nebi hlubokém (Song to the Moon) from Dvořák’s Rusalka, prior to which she gave a quick introduction. She then sang her beloved aria as if it were not of love lost, but love cautiously hopeful. When the stage was left to the orchestra once again, it was time for Gounod’s Waltz from Faust. BIFO and the conductor’s best efforts in keeping the waltz time went astray under the high dome and the cold stone walls of the auditorium. The dance played in syncopated time with the illusion of the timpani arriving after the orchestra’s beat. I can’t stress this enough: Hagia Eirene, as gorgeous a setting as it is, can never do justice to a full-sized orchestra.

Following Renée Fleming’s re-arrival on stage for a series of romantic arias from both Leoncavallo’s and Puccini’s La Bohème(s), for which she chose her most seductive tone, it was finally time for BIFO’s moment: their intermezzo from Puccini’s Manon Lescaut was passionate and forceful. Ms. Tuba Ozkan, the principal violist, emerged as the third champion of the evening in the dramatic introductory string quartet. Her impassioned playing pumped the much needed zeal into the orchestra, who finally came alive and played like the first-rate ensemble that they are.

The final two arias of the evening were Francesco Cilea’s ‘Io son l’umile ancella’ from Adriana Lecouvreur, and ‘ Mercé, dilette amiche’ from Verdi’s I Vespri Siciliani, both among Ms. Fleming’s signature pieces. ‘Merce‘, in particular provided ample opportunity for the soprano to showcase the wide range of her vocal abilities. This aria ended the evening to unending applause from the audience.

Ms. Fleming went on to bless us with four encores. The de rigueur ‘O mio babbino caro’, followed by a surprisingly jazzy rendition of Summertime (her ‘And you’ll take to the sky’ is probably unmatched), West Side Story’s quirkily realized ‘I feel pretty’, and finally another of her signature pieces: Tosca’s ‘Vissi D’arte’.

Without a doubt, the evening belonged to Ms. Fleming. But it would not have gone this well without the orchestra’s two string principals.

Alain Matalon