REVIEW: Star soprano Renée Fleming joins the NSO for an evening of Strauss.
By Patrick D. McCoy
While most of the vocal music community has turned its attention to the commemoration of Giuseppe Verdi’s 200th birthday year, the National Symphony Orchestra focused on another prominent composer’s anniversary. Superstar soprano Renée Fleming was at the center of a semi-staged concert performance of Richard Strauss’ “Der Rosenkavalier.” Led by conductor Christoph Eschenbach, the evening of music was an intelligently conceived evening of music, of Strauss’ most beloved comic opera. The music of the overture was colored with brass and woodwinds and marked by a subtle dynamic contrast played sensitively by the orchestra. Towards the end of the opera’s opening overture, it was clear the audience appreciated the orchestra, as they erupted into applause.
Fleming entered onstage in an emerald green gown with a dramatic black wrap, capturing the attention of the entire hall. A moment which could have been seen as a distraction to the orchestra’s rendering of Strauss’ orchestral meanderings actually gave way to the excitement that was yet to come in the program. As the Marschallin, Fleming was regal both in appearance and her vocal bearing. Though the performance was concert presentation, Fleming was in full command of their movements on stage, giving life to the music as if she were in a fully-staged operatic performance.
Over the course of the evening, other stars were revealed. The huge marquee poster hung outside Kennedy Center advertising the performance showed Fleming elegantly adorned in an elaborate gown, and made it clear who the advertised “star” was. But the performance was vocally anchored in the robust, expansive voice of mezzo-soprano Stephanie Houtzeel. Houtzeel replaced Sarah Connelly at short notice and was as equally thrilling to watch and listen to. It is not often enough that a mezzo-soprano can stand toe-to-toe on stage with a leading soprano, but Houtzeel was certainly a welcomed addition to the program.
Houtzeel’s commanding performance revealed the humble side of Fleming. Despite not playing a front and center vocal role all evening, Fleming instinctively, and without reservation, shared the stage graciously with her colleagues, including Washington Opera Young Artist Soloman Howard who had several brief but impressionable interactions with her in his role as the notary. Other notable standouts include Franz Hawlata as Baron Ochs auf Lerchenau and soprano Irmgard Vilmaier as Marianne Leitmetzerin. Hawlata delivered his role with the necessary projection needed to convey nobility and Vilmaier unearthed a rich, resonant voice that gave life to her portrayal of Marianne. While vocally thrilling, the evening also made good use of several Washington-based groups, including The Woodley Ensemble and The Children’s Chorus of Washington.
In the final trio, soprano Marisol Montalvo joined Fleming and Houtzeel for one of Strauss’ most beloved opera ensemble pieces for female voices. This was the moment in the evening that Fleming was truly without equal. Her voice poured over the orchestra’s accompaniment like lyrical molten lava. Fleming has sung this trio many times, including with soprano Kathleen Battle and once with Frederica von Stade and the late Claudio Abbado in what is now a legendary recording. Montalvo sang with a light, clear soprano that hovered over the other two voices, but hers did not quite provide a crown for the climatic trio. Houtzeel not only showed off her lower register, but also left the listener wanting to hear more of the equally thrilling upper range of her voice.
The NSO provided a dramatic musical evening in a compact setting – truly an amazing feat.
Recently named among the Forty Under 40 for his contributions to arts and humanities, Patrick D. McCoy received a B.M. in vocal performance from Virginia State University and a M.M. in church music from the Shenandoah Conservatory in Winchester, Va. , where he serves on the alumni board of directors. He has contributed arts and culture pieces to CBS Washington, The Afro-American Newspaper and the newly published book, “In Spite of the Drawbacks” (Association of Black Women Historians), which includes his chapter on legendary soprano Leontyne Price. McCoy has interviewed some of the most acclaimed artists of our time, including Renée Fleming, Joshua Bell, Martina Arroyo, Denyce Graves, Eric Owens, Norman Scribner, Julian Wachner, Christine Brewer and Lawrence Brownlee. He is music director at Trinity Episcopal Church, DC. Listen to these interviews and others at Blog Talk Radio. Additionally, he is a member of the Music Critics Association of North America. McCoy may be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @PatrickDMcCoy.