Three Friends in a Fête à la Française

United StatesUnited States SaintSaëns, Fauré, Debussy, Delibes, Hahn, Berlioz, Messager, Offenbach: Renée Fleming (soprano), Susan Graham (mezzo-soprano), Bradley Moore (piano), Carnegie Hall, New York City. 27.1.2013 (BH)

SaintSaëns: “Pastorale”
“Viens! une flûte invisible”
“El desdichado”
Fauré: “Puisqu’ici bas,” Op. 10, No. 1
“Pleurs d’or,” Op. 72
Pavane in F-sharp Minor, Op. 50
“Tarentelle,” Op. 10, No. 2
Debussy: Clair de lunefrom Suite bergamasque
Debussy: “Mandoline”
“Beau soir”
Delibes: “Les filles de Cadix”
Hahn: “Le rossignol des lilas”
 “Fêtes galantes”
 “Le printemps”
Berlioz: “La mort d’Ophélie,” Op. 18, No. 2
André Messager: “Blanche-Marie et Marie-Blanche” from Les p’tites Michu
Offenbach: Barcarolle from Les contes d’Hoffmann
Delibes: “Duo des fleurs” from Lakmé
Mozart: “Ah guarda sorella” from Così fan tutte
Guglielmi: “La Vie en rose”
Canteloube: “Malurous qu’o uno fenno” from Songs of the Auvergne
Humperdinck: “Prayer” from Hansel and Gretel

To have either Renée Fleming or Susan Graham onstage all to one’s self would be a treat, but to have both on the program seems like some undeserved reward from the Universe for an unintended good deed. Their 19th-century French song recital at Carnegie Hall—mostly duets, with the impressively understated Bradley Moore working miracles at the piano—was part of Carnegie’s Perspectives series, which Fleming is curating this spring. The lustrous, enchanting program included taped vocal reminiscences—mostly humorous—from Mary Garden (1974-1967), a Scottish soprano known for working with Debussy and Massenet in Paris in the early 20th century.

As Fleming reminded us, opinions can appear differently as time passes; she quoted Debussy who wrote, “I have a fear of sentimentality, and cannot forget that its name is Saint-Saens.” But the three Saint-Saens odes that opened the program were nothing if not lovely, sung with the kind of unanimity that showed glimpses of the singers’ offstage friendly camaraderie. Ditto, a Fauré set climaxing with “Pleurs d’or” (“Tears of Gold”) with its final lines, “Larmes d’extase’ éplorement délicieux, Tombez des nuits! Tombez des fleurs! Tombez des yeux!” (“Tears of ecstasy, deliciously grief-stricken, let nights fall! Let flowers fall! Let eyes fall!”) And who couldn’t hold back a smile as the two singers leaned in like best chums for Fauré’s Pavane.

Each of the singers had solo segments. Fleming was exquisitely careful with phrasing and dynamic levels in Debussy’s “Mandoline” and “Beau soir,” followed by Delibes’s “Les filles de Cadix,” packed with character. Graham’s creamy tone made the most of Reynaldo Hahn’s “Le rossignol des lilas” and “Infidélité,” as she joked about concert attire, quoting Ms. Garden: “What holds that dress up?” “Your age and my discretion. Men like it because they don’t know where (the dress) ends and I begin.”

Both singers made a graceful descent into their lower registers for Berlioz’s “La mort d’Ophélie,” and caused more than a few chuckles from the audience as they elbowed each other in mock competition in André Messager’s “Blanche-Marie et Marie-Blanche.” Offenbach’s famous “Barcarolle” from Les contes d’Hoffmann was rhapsodic, and the formal program closed with the Flower Duet from Lakmé, flooding the hall with its lilting pulse.

Encores were a given, and we got four, starting with a sparkling account of Mozart’s “Ah guarda sorella” from Così fan tutte. Graham had field day with Giglielmi’s “La vie en rose,” after sashaying out with a cigarette, sitting down at the piano—and much to my astonishment and surely of others, accompanying herself. (She really needs to do a cabaret act.) Fleming countered with a luxurious account of Canteloube’s “Malurous qu’o uno fenno” from Songs of the Auvergne, and then both returned to join hands for the big finale, a touching “Prayer” from Humperdinck’s Hansel and Gretel, with radiance to spare.

Bruce Hodges