Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Belle Époque, beau soir: Fleming and Graham at Carnegie Hall

A recital by either Renée Fleming or Susan Graham is invariably an eagerly anticipated event; the Carnegie Hall recital which the two divas gave jointly was an evening in which their musical and personal chemistry made enchanting a journey through the salon music of the Belle Époque, with a few detours on to its operatic stage. Images from the concert may be found here. Since Graham and Fleming's off-stage personae (and relationship) are so well known, I thought the device of having them act as hosts of their own salon evening, providing historical background (and naughty anecdotes!) concerning the works presented, was a clever and effective one. Historian that I am, I was delighted to learn more of Mary Garden and Sybil Sanderson, as well as charmed by the women who so ably sang the repertoire created for them (full program here.)

The evening opened with a pair of pastoral ditties by Saint-Saens, text and music light and evocative of light flirtation. The same composer's "Desdichado" demonstrated not only impressive vocal agility from both singers, but the fact that they were in on the joke of its exaggerated exoticism. I loved the suite of four Fauré songs, with "Puisqu'ici bas" infused with ecstatic longing, "Pleurs d'or" with its melancholy counterpart. Following these, pianist Bradley Moore had a moment for solo glory. I might have chosen something--anything--a little less familiar than "Clair de lune," but Moore played it with commendable restraint. In the ensuing Debussy songs, I had some trouble understanding Fleming's French (which I always find frustrating,) but she used phrasing and vocal color expressively in "Mandoline (witty, sexy, mocking) and the exquisite "Beau soir." Fleming exhibited diva manners in "Les Filles de Cadix," and an unexpected gift for the telling of a risqué anecdote in the story that preceded it. ("What is holding that dress up, mademoiselle?" asked a lawyer of a diva. "Two things." Pause. "Your age, and my discretion.")

After the interval, Graham emerged (resplendent in silver) to give us "her beloved Reynaldo Hahn," which was, of course, a treat. Graham's mastery of music and text seems complete, and her communication is nuanced and generous. "Le rossignol des lilas" was suffused with hope and joy, while the deep melancholy of "Infidelité" was subtly evoked through coloring of text and tone. "Fêtes galantes" was merry and flirtatious, connected to the reality which the satirized romantic conventions only ape. While richly sensual, with caressed, caressing syllables, "Le printemps" also held within it some sense of the winter survived. (I know I'm gushing; she was just that good.) Berlioz's "La mort d'Ophelie" was given in a duet setting; the harmonies were of course gorgeous, and Fleming and Graham were attuned to each other and to the piece's haunting cadences. A shift to operatic duets brought a shift in mood, as well, with Messager's mischievous "Blanche-Marie et Marie-Blanche." I would have happily heard more eroticism in the famous duets which concluded the evening; however, it was nice to get a genuinely relaxed "Barcarolle" for once (gondola rides should always be languid.) Delibes' "Sous le dome épais" was indeed infused with sensuality; it was just that this sensuality, to my surprise, was not interpersonal. 

Graham and Fleming were generous with encores, beginning with a delightfully turned "Ah, guarda, sorella." (Fleming identified it as an opera they'd never done together; Graham retorted that it was too early to say never. I'm with her, and would happily write a short essay about why having the lovers "foolish enough to be young," in Dorothy L. Sayers' phrase, could be brilliant.) In any case: they performed it beautifully, and with just the right hint of irony. Graham's singing of "La vie en rose" was intimate, honest, and beautiful. Accompanying herself on the piano, she drew the audience, reverently silent, into contemplation of how the circle of a lover's arms can become the world, and make the world seem new. This was given, I should add, with a smoldering sensuality that was far from sickly sentiment. Fleming gave a Spanish folk song which satirized, with cheerful resignation, the eternal discontents of love and marriage (I missed the title.) Together, in leave-taking, Fleming and Graham sang the "Abendsegen" from Hansel and Gretel; they sang it beautifully, and I cried. Its touching directness made for a satisfying conclusion to an evening often celebrating light and transitory beauties, in music giving them enduring expression.


  1. Yes, it was a thoroughly enjoyable evening.

    I know people went gaga over Graham's La Vie en Rose, but I thought it was delivered a bit too operatically.

  2. Would love to read your thoughts on "the lovers 'foolish enough to be young'"! (hint, hint) :)

  3. Wow. You have truly made me wish to have been there.

  4. Oh, I wish I'd been there! Susan Graham is one of my all-time favorites, and unfortunately I've never seen her live. Must remedy that. I wish this program was on CD; I could do with this kind of music right now.

  5. @Anon Classically sung it certainly was, but Graham seemed so at home with it, and so sincere, that I (also a big Piaf fan) was entirely won over.

    @Hannah Ooh... I'm not sure my thoughts on Cosi are coherent enough for a blog post. Maybe on a DVD some time... :)

    @Dr. B. Merci!

    @Christie I do adore Susan Graham. You might be able to approximate this with existing albums: Graham's wonderful Hahn disc, "L'heure exquise," or Fleming's "Poemes," or perhaps Graham's more recent "Vixens, Virgins, and Viragos." Also, you might poke around the opera tumblrs and see if this recital is available there.


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