Arts » Performing Arts

La Renee Reigns Without Strain

Plus, Mozart and The Beatles, together at last!


Blonder, slimmer and securely at the top of her game, Renee Fleming majestically entered Belk Theater last Wednesday -- in a stunning purple gown that seemed to have its own wind machine fanning its diaphanous folds. For all her queenly serenity, La Renee seemed at first unaware she was among worshipers.

She dipped tentatively down into the bottom of her range, where Richard Strauss's Four Last Songs begin, producing a thinner, less fruity sound than we're accustomed to on her recordings. But she quickly broke free from these earthly moorings and took flight in the sonic stratosphere. And what a breathtaking, radiant flight it was.

Fleming soared among the clouds with the immaculate grace of a gliding seagull, seeming able to reach the high notes effortlessly -- and seeming able to hold them endlessly while bending them in lyrical curlicues. All evening long, she rarely seemed to stray far above her midrange, rarely strained for a high note, and never seemed anywhere close to running short of breath.

Artistry was nearly as impressive as the formidable Fleming technique. There was a budding freshness to "Spring" that few sopranos can convey, and there were still bright summery gleams in "September" mixed with darker shadings. The exultant tinge Fleming brought to "Upon Retiring" was unusually uplifting, but if one craved melancholy here, it came from Charlotte Symphony concertmaster Calin Lupanu's heartfelt solo.

Maestro Christof Perick and a hugely swelled ensemble produced a particularly lush sound introducing Strauss's final valediction, "At Dusk." Here Fleming removed all doubt that she could delve down to the depths of the music's sadness. She journeyed there nobly, almost serenely, with only the slightest wisp of melodrama.

Fleming certainly took CSO concertgoers into unfamiliar territory with forays into Cilea's Adriana Lecouvreur and Verdi's I vespri siciliani. While the trills, the warbly coloratura and the stratospheric frolics of the Verdi were more rousing and spectacular, Fleming's effortless breath control on the Cilea -- and her ability to produce downy soft volume on the highest passages -- was perhaps even more impressive.

An errant cue from the light booth gave away Fleming's intention of singing "The Moon Song" from Dvorak's Russalka as her first encore. But it didn't dilute the pleasure of watching Fleming dip into one of her signature operatic roles.

I must have misheard Fleming when she declared, announcing her second encore, that Strauss's "Cacilie" was her favorite song in the world. Aside from the intoxicating "Dusk," I can point to at least three orchestral songs collected by Jessye Norman on her legendary Strauss recital that I'd rather hear. But none of them is briefer.

No, La Renee was priming us for her most devastating thrust, a ravishing rendition of Harold Arlen's "Over the Rainbow," embellished with fluttery bluebird ornamentations. Caressing the verse and the melody with incomparable creaminess, Fleming elicited goosebumps long before she reached the bridge. By the time we were at the coda, I was close to tears. Fleming's recent flirtations with jazz have obviously been worthwhile.

Perick & Co. began the evening auspiciously with a richly textured, excellently paced performance of Mozart's "Haffner" symphony. Now I could see why CSO had decided to launch its Mostly Mozart series at locations that were all at a distance from the Center City. The extra out-of-town tuneups brought out subtle balances among the string sections in the "Menuetto" third movement and resulted in uncommon polish in the brisk "Presto" finale. Truly gala overall.

Still basking in rave notices from the New York press, North Carolina Dance Theatre began its new season with Beatles Barbeque & Balanchine. Two of the three B's were very exciting debuts, a reclamation of Balanchine's Divertimento #15 staged by Patricia McBride and the world premiere of Beatle Juice by Dwight Rhoden, commemorating the 40th anniversary of the Fab 4's first US tour.David Tang conducted the Mozart live, and the opening two movements perfectly spotlighted the NCDT's ensemble and individual strengths. The allegro featured an elegant cavalcade of balletic symmetries with five men intriguingly counterpoised with three women. Then we saw the bravura and personality of Mia Cunningham, Nicholle Rochelle, Daniel Wiley and Traci Gilchrest in the theme and variations.

Cunningham, in her 14th season, continues her remarkable resurgence after seeming in decline just two seasons ago. She was the freshest lady onstage in Juice, sparkling in "Oh! Darling" and "Eleanor Rigby." Uri Sands and Rebecca Carmazzi fairly sizzled in "Something."

For the second year in a row, Mark Godden let the team down. Last fall, his new Double Blind opus wasn't ready for NCDT's opener, forcing artistic director Jean-Pierre to plunge into bluegrass, rushing his Shindig into production. This year, Godden's Divining Grace arrived half-cooked, poorly conceived, blandly designed, and limping with lame gimmickry -- the antithesis of barbecue.

Bonnefoux needs to give up on Godden, who obviously doesn't have the right gusto for these Southern-fried projects, and come back to the kettle himself. Or else he should lean on NCDT2 director Mark Diamond for future down-home fare.

A guerilla production of David Margulies' Collected Stories, running at Theatre Charlotte through October 23, is a superb overachievement. Set design by Brian Ruggaber, lighting and costumes by Rita AmirAhmadi and original music by Alan Kaufman all surpass reasonable expectations -- even for Douglas Welton, the producer/director best known for Theatre a la Mode on public access cable.The fascinating two-hander explores the shifting relationship between a venerable short-story writer, Ruth Steiner, and her protegee, Lisa Morrison. To sustain her budding reputation, Lisa violates her mentor's confidence and publishes a fictionalized account of Ruth's romance with famed poet Delmore Schwartz.

Although Welton's blocking is occasionally wooden, he secures exceptional performances from Gloria King and Laura Aguirre. If King can't replicate the continental flavors -- or the leonine manner -- Uta Hagen bestowed upon Ruth, there's something to be said for her extra warmth and ferocity. Aguirre gives her best dramatic performance yet as Lisa, most convincing as the wide-eyed idolater we meet at the beginning and only slightly lacking in subtlety as the schemer she becomes.

There's a valuable pre-show beginning a half hour before each performance that will help patrons unfamiliar with Delmore Schwartz catch up with his poetry, his career and his eccentricities.

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