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The art of dying beautifully

Renee Fleming's creamy voice entices audiences; Lorraine Hunt Lieberson's artistry is more fully felt.

October 26, 2003|Mark Swed | Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK — During the second intermission of "La Traviata" at the Metropolitan Opera the other night, conversation turned inevitably to Renee Fleming. She opened the Met season by singing Violetta, Verdi's beloved courtesan, and the vast majority of reviews were ecstatic. Fleming was compared to Maria Callas and in some circles deemed even more impressive. The Met has a huge hit on its hands. While waiting for me to pick up tickets at the box office, a friend said that a man desperate to get into the sold-out house had just offered $1,000 for her seat.

Yet neither my friend, who teaches at Juilliard, nor a colleague we ran into in the lobby was convinced by Fleming. She made lovely sounds and emoted all over the stage, but the colleague, an expert on opera performance, felt Fleming never gave the impression of a Violetta who had been around. His companion, the widow of a well-known composer, thought Fleming naive and in need of a good director. My friend, who has more years of opera-going experience than I, was bothered by the glamorous soprano's rhythmic sloppiness.

Such comments might seem overly harsh for a singer in as glorious voice as the popular Fleming was that night. It was evident from her ambitious performance that she really did want to bring something fresh to the role. The lavish Franco Zeffirelli production was created five years ago for what was to be her first Violetta, but she had second thoughts about the role and canceled. She felt she wasn't yet ready to encompass the demands of impersonating Verdi's consumptive, high-class courtesan, who gives up everything for love and then sadly returns to her former life, giving up love for love.

Finally, at 44, Fleming felt ready. And her liberties with rhythm might have been intentional, her way to reveal abandon. Not only did the impassioned conductor, Valery Gergiev, not seem to mind, he actually egged her on.

But the sophisticated opera-goers I was talking with were quite right. Listen to Callas in her live 1955 recording with Carlo Maria Giulini and, sure enough, this incomparably compelling singer was musically fastidious; it was her attention to detail that provided such intensity. Fleming has been around -- she just hasn't been paying enough attention.

It so happened that, in Boston the night before, I had encountered another major American diva, Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, trying out a new role for the first time in a concert performance of "Pelleas and Melisande" given by the Boston Symphony in the acoustically revered Symphony Hall. Hunt Lieberson, a mezzo-soprano, is also in her prime and is as dramatically incisive a singer as can be found on the lyric stage. Her Melisande was alive to every changing emotion in Debussy's flickeringly mysterious score.

Still, the mesmerizing Hunt Lieberson wasn't an ideal Melisande. No one could accuse her of sleepwalking through the role as less imaginative singers have, mistaking the alluring, enigmatic, fragile princess of Maurice Maeterlinck's libretto for an airhead. Instead, she was fascinatingly direct in revealing the character as an elusive femme fatale. But her robust, feeling Melisande had perhaps been around just a little bit too long.

Fleming and Hunt Lieberson represent opposite operatic poles. The booklet covers of their new CDs show as much. For her Decca disc, "By Request," Fleming entices buyers for a greatest-hits collection by vacuously peering out of heavily made-up eyes like some blemish-free operatic Barbie doll, every strand of auburn hair carefully styled. Obviously, she -- or at least her record company -- does not want us to think she is any more serious than a Hollywood soap opera actress hawking Rolexes (which Fleming also does).

By contrast, Hunt Lieberson's black-and-white photo on the booklet of her new Nonesuch recording of two profound Bach cantatas is that of an attractive woman with searching eyes and long, thick hair. The mezzo, who is 49, does not try to disguise her age. She has the look of a spiritual guide, and you feel as though you can trust her to know something about death and the deepest reaches of consolation, which are the concern of the cantatas. Her performances contain some of the most moving Bach singing on record.

Fleming's Violetta and Hunt Lieberson's Melisande did not exist in a vacuum. Fleming had the benefit of a fine cast and a white-hot conductor, but she was the centerpiece of a tasteless, ornate production and had apparently been given little meaningful theatrical direction. Hunt Lieberson was also joined by an exceptional cast. But with Bernard Haitink's grimly determined conducting and singers stationed at music stands, she had little chance of bringing Debussy's atmospheric drama to life.

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