Renée Fleming shows her versatility in an innovative recital in Berkeley

United StatesUnited States Various: Renée Fleming (soprano), Howard Watkins (piano). Cal Performances, Zellerbach Hall, University of California, Berkeley, 9.2.2024. (HS)

Renée Fleming (soprano) and Howard Watkins (piano) performing recently

Leave it to Renée Fleming to rethink the voice recital in a way that makes statements about our world, our culture and her extraordinary comfort with so many musical styles. The celebrated soprano’s latest project veered from Handel to Björk by way of Nico Muhly and The Lord of the Rings, all tied together by a fascination with the world’s climate crisis.

On daily nature walks to pass the time while isolated at home in the early months of the pandemic, she thought of songs that reflect how being in nature can heal, and how a love for music and the Earth is so necessary. This led to a Grammy Award-winning recording with Yannick Nézet-Séguin on piano, and it is now the centerpiece of her current recital tour, which uses six of the pieces on the album among its songs.

The National Geographic Society compiled Voice of Nature: The Anthropocene, a stunning video collection of frozen mountains, lush tropical settings, animals and sea creatures galore. It was projected on a screen during the first half of the concert as Fleming and pianist Howard Watkins, a busy collaborator with some of the most prominent recitalists, provided the music in Zellerbach Hall.

The impetus for the forty-minute video was, of all things, Soylent Green, the 1973 dystopian film. As a teenager, Fleming was especially struck by the scene in which an elderly man, played by Edward G. Robinson, chose to end his life, but first immersed himself in videos of a long-lost abundance of Nature, set to the classical music of Tchaikovsky, Beethoven and Grieg.

The concert demonstrated how multi-skilled Fleming can be. She opened with an a capella ‘Pretty Bird’ by feminist folk singer Hazel Dickens, shading the freewheeling Appalachian melody with none of Hazel’s hard edge yet investing it with an existential yearning that played well against the projected scenes of birds in nature.

The song most specifically targeted toward ecology was Muhly’s ‘Endless Space’. The composer has written some gorgeous music to fit Fleming’s voice, including her role in the opera The Hours, and this song made expert use of her range and accuracy to bring the message home. It was sandwiched between ‘Care selve’ from Handel’s Atalanta, which got a precise, expressive performance; and ‘Baïléro’ from Cantaloube’s Songs of the Auvergne, a mainstay for light-voice sopranos. Fleming found a youthful tinge to her sound for this one.

For me, the highlight of the evening was Howard Shore’s ethereal song, ’Twilight and Shadow,’ from The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King. The song, which underlies a critical scene involving Aragorn and Arwin, floated serenely and made a perfect fit with Fleming’s creamy sound. It should: it was written for her to sing for the 2003 film’s soundtrack.

‘Our Finch Feeder’ from Winter Morning Walks, a song cycle written by jazz composer Maria Schneider specifically for Fleming, segued into ‘All Is Full of Love’, a richly endowed melody by pop singer-composer Björk. The set finished with ‘Evening’, a song of uneasiness from the pen of Kevin Puts, and the totally different, defiantly pop ‘What the World Needs Now’ by Burt Bacharach and Hal David. Somehow, Fleming invested it with dignity.

Throughout, Fleming adjusted seamlessly to the various styles, picking up a microphone for the songs written for that sound and handling them with the aplomb of an accomplished jazz singer.

The connection to nature and love continued after the intermission with songs by Fauré and Grieg that reflect the Romantic Era’s fascination with forest and seashore settings. Those four songs, which came closest to a standard vocal recital, were dispatched by Fleming and Watkins with polish and care for the emotional meanings.

After the Fauré and Grieg songs, sung au naturel, the recital concluded with more familiar music. ‘O mio babbino caro’, the familiar arietta from Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi, felt a bit broad for the pouting teenager it was written to portray but suitably grand for an opera star’s show. With microphone, she decorated ‘All the Things You Are’ with jazz-singer riffs on the final measures.

As a finale she gave a cheeky edge to Andrew Lippa’s ‘The Diva’, a snarky, rap-infused takedown of singers who take themselves too seriously. One line – ‘I am the diva of an undetermined age’ – jumped out. Even as she reduces her opera calendar at age 64, that voice makes the most of her early experience in jazz and, more recently, film soundtracks and Tony-nominated work on Broadway.

The magic of this innovative program was its many layers. A theme is not unusual for a voice recital, but this template is not for just any singer. It used Fleming’s deep interest in how we as humans respond to climate challenges and how music affects our health and psychology to enhance her ability to reach an audience with more than her voice. The result was as stimulating to our psyches as it was kind to our ears.

For an encore, she asked the audience to ‘help’ her and sing along with the familiar chorus after each of four verses of Leonard Cohen’s pop classic, ‘Hallelujah’. At one point she looked up as the audience rendered the familiar refrain nicely and noted, ‘I think we have a few singers here tonight’. She generously and warmly waved goodbye by saying, ‘I’m glad we sang together’.

Harvey Steiman

Hazel Dickens – ‘Pretty Bird’
Handel – ‘Care selve’ from Atalanta
Nico Muhly – ‘Endless Space’
Canteloube – ‘Baïléro’ from Songs of the Auvergne
Maria Schneider – ‘Our Finch Feeder’ from Winter Morning Walks
Björk – ‘All Is Full of Love’
Howard Shore – ‘Twilight and Shadow’ from The Lord of the Rings
Kevin Puts – ‘Evening’
Burt Bacharach/Hal David – ‘What the World Needs Now’
Fauré – ‘Au bord de l’eau’; ‘Les berceaux’
Grieg – ‘Lauf der Welt’; ‘Zur Rosenzeit’
Puccini – ‘O mio babbino caro’ from Gianni Schicchi
Kern – ‘All the Things You Are’
Andrew Lippa – ‘The Diva’
Leonard Cohen – ‘Hallelujah’ (encore)

Accompanied by Voice of Nature: The Anthropocene, an original film by National Geographic

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