Soprano Renee Fleming made her Los Angeles Philharmonic and Hollywood Bowl debuts in one glamorous swoop Tuesday. She was beautiful to look at and luscious to hear. She sang pairs of arias and songs by Handel, Massenet and Strauss, two folk songs and two Broadway tunes, and a trio of opera hits. Warmly received by the audience, she also sang three encores.
Fleming has a dark-toned, creamy soprano that she employs in spinning out long, even-held lines. She is not a word painter, nor particularly gripping as a dramatist. But she is a warm, generous artist who connects with the audience and who is one of the few classical artists who can sing Broadway tunes as well as opera with success.
She also risked such small-scale, intimate works as "Adieu, notre petite table" (Farewell, our little table) from Massenet's "Manon" or Strauss' delicate "Morgen" (Morning) in the great outdoors.
Her voice is not ideal for the finespun, glittering coloratura of "Merci, jeunes amies" (Thank you, young friends) from Verdi's "Les Vepres Siciliennes" (sung in Italian, although the text was given in French in the program book). She almost acknowledged that by telling the audience afterward, "I'm not supposed to be able to do this." But certainly the deepening richness that she sounded in "O mio babbino caro" (Oh, dear daddy) from Puccini's "Gianni Schicchi" sounded more natural and congenial to her.
These judgments are colored by hearing her through the Bowl's new amplification system, which at least initially -- "Morrai, si, l'empia tua testa" (Yes, you will die) from Handel's "Rodelinda" -- made her sound as if she were singing through a long tube. Elsewhere it added unpredictable metallic glints and edges, and generally sent the voice all around the new Bowl shell.
Assisting her was conductor Patrick Summers, music director of the Houston Grand Opera, who was making his Bowl debut too. A considerate if self-effacing accompanist, Summers gave hints of more individuality in the five purely orchestral selections, particularly the overture to Verdi's "I Vespri Siciliani," which escaped much of the rumpty-tum poor Verdi is usually subjected to these days.
As a whole, the orchestra sounded richer and more coherent on its own than when accompanying Fleming. Still, balances sometimes shifted strangely -- violas dropping out or cellos gaining unwarranted prominence -- and echoes continued cadences after they were made.
More than ever, the Bowl has become an arena for technological experience. You can ignore those large projection screens at each side of the stage if you want. But your eyes inevitably drift there, especially as the disembodied sound seems to come more from the speakers on the shell than from the stage. In fact, you could almost ignore the people on the stage altogether.
In that case, the Bowl should just work harder to coordinate sound and visuals. Too often, fast-paced music was accompanied by shots of musicians moving their fingers or bows relatively slowly. Instruments heard were not always the instruments seen. There appeared to be a limited number of angles. The brass section was usually shot from the back, which was odd when trumpeter Donald Green had a solo.
The Bowl will always be a pleasant experience, but it seems to be moving toward a new synthesis that is still a work in progress.