Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Double fantasy

The divas take a moment to relax on an earlier stop of their tour.






You know, some days I feel so lucky to be able to do this.  And one such day was last Sunday, when I was privileged to hear Renée Fleming and Susan Graham (above) warble to each other - and to a packed Symphony Hall - in a sold-out Celebrity Series concert.

For this proved a vocal match truly made in heaven - or at any rate close by.  Superstar soprano Fleming - familiar not only from the Met and TV, but also from her many appearances with the BSO - drew the big crowd, I suppose; but I'd say it was the warm (and witty) Graham who most completely won them over by the time the house lights rose.  Be that as it may, the two ladies seemed untroubled by any sense of competition, perhaps because they've been friends ever since they won the Met auditions some 25 years ago (and perhaps because vocally they're in such exquisite, mutually-supportive balance).  Indeed, their entwined voices seem to all but become one at times - only to soon delicately part ways again.  These ladies weren't just born to sing, they were born to sing together.

Fleming, of course, possesses one of the purest and most gorgeous sopranos on the planet, although her lower range isn't as powerfully supported as her top.  Graham's rich and dusky mezzo is, in contrast, far steadier across its range - indeed, she is an expert at the kind of superbly controlled vocal swell that seems to rise like a musical standing wave.

Both ladies looked fabulous, btw - first in black, then in dazzling shades of silver (Graham) and pink ruby (Fleming).  With her hair pulled back, and her gowns off the shoulder, Graham made a striking, statuesque amazon (and appropriately enough, given her successes in pants roles); Fleming, meanwhile, favored stoles and drapes that transformed her into a kind of opening flower.

That image was quite appropriate to the repertoire they'd chosen - most of it from the Parisian salons of the Belle Époque, where most every song was meant as a kind of bloom.  And the ladies had an intriguing case to make about this particular period of musical ferment - that the sopranos who first sang these songs had a key role in their very creation; they were not merely interpreters but actual muses - and not just in the salon but also the boudoir.  (!) Thus between numbers Graham and Fleming often extolled the crowd with anecdotes and back-stage war stories - and at the top of each half of the program, we got to listen to some delightfully salty reminiscences by the Scottish soprano Mary Garden, who sang for Debussy and Massenet.

Graham's hearty stage presence gave her patter a welcome shot of spice (sometimes delivered with a native Texan twang), while Fleming mostly played hostess; still, in general, the chit-chat came off well, although I sometimes wished they'd just sing some more instead.  For to be honest, almost every number was transporting.  The opening duets from Saint-Saëns were lively and exquisite, but then the Fauré that followed was so good that I began to feel a little faint. The long, gently devastating droop of "Puisqu’ici bas toute âme" may have actually been the highlight of the evening - although who could resist the trembling depth of "Pleurs d’or"?

There were surprises to be found here as well (who knew the melody of Fauré's familiar "Pavane" came with catty lyrics?), as much of the program proved fairly obscure - obscure but gorgeous, I should say.  And each lady shone in solo turns as well as duets.  Fleming seemed to glow with the limpid grace she's famous for in Debussy's brief, but heart-breaking "Beau soir," for instance - and then demonstrated she can sashay with the best of them in Delibes' jaunty "The girls of Cadiz."

When Graham took her solos - in a memorable silver sheath - she focused on the lesser-known songs of Reynaldo Hahn, a favorite of hers who was a possible lover of Proust (the program told us that, improbably, Hahn lived from 1847 to 1974 (!); his real dates are 1874 to 1947).  Let's just say that Graham more than made a case for Hahn - and revealed her own talent for implied romantic tragedy in the composer's subtly moving "Infidélité."

But wait, there was more, still more - a ravishing rendition of Offenbach's drifting "Barcarolle," more heartbreak courtesy of Berlioz (in "La mort d'Ophélie"), and a dream-team rendition of the "Flower Duet" from Lakmé.  As a kind of intermission, accompanist Bradley Moore also essayed the familiar "Clair de lune" with  a surprising level of architecture and attack; and as an encore, Graham turned to Piaf, accompanying herself on the piano through a take on "La Vie en rose" that was so confidently happy (she entered with a cigarette dangling from her lip, and all but gargled Piaf's guttural 'r's) yet so rich with real romantic feeling that I honestly think I will remember it for the rest of my life.  In fact, I have to admit - something shifted in my musical soul at that moment.  I'll adore Renée all my days - but now my heart belongs to Susan.

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