★★★★☆ Even without an orchestra, the People’s Diva came, sang and conquered.

Concert Hall, Sydney Opera House
August 30, 2015

Not for nothing is Renée Fleming called “The People’s Diva”. The American soprano whose repertoire extends from Handel to Strauss, from Verdi to Wellesz, has conquered world stages and concert platforms for several decades now – hell, she’s even sung at the Super Bowl. Of late, she has spoken much of ‘time’ and ‘age’ and has mentioned a possible winding down period for her opera work. But given her flawless singing in this all too brief concert at the Sydney Opera House I’d suggest she has a few years up her elegant-gowned sleeve yet.

The programme was popular, as befits her status as “TPD”, but not dumb or dumbed down. Most numbers were by composers known for their skilful orchestrations, and given the generous scale of Fleming’s voice, a little orchestral accompaniment would have been advantageous. It could also have extended the brief recital by giving the singer a break between sets (and at $250 for top tickets the Sydney Opera House might have given more thought to value for money). But these are quibbles, as what we did get would be hard to criticise, so effortlessly did Fleming deliver. Another bonus was the confident way that Fleming chatted away between items in an engagingly warm-hearted manner, talking us through the programme and giving us handy pointers along the way.

She started the concert with Ravel’s spicy, seductive Shéhérezade, a work that fits her like a silken glove and a chance for the singer to show her attention to text, immaculate diction and control of a creamy lyrical line. Her opening sally of “Asie, Asie, Asie”, each repetition invested with a subtly different emotion, was indicative of what was to come from this supremely communicative singer throughout the evening. Acting through the voice invested fascinating degrees of passion to simple phrases such as “je voudrais” or “la tristesse ou la joie”, while she caressed heady references to “dark amorous eyes” and phyicalised the poet Tristan Klingsor’s references to crafty merchants and such. In L’Indifférent she captured perfectly the exquisite pain of sensual longing in tension with the pleasure to be found in the contemplation of beauty alone.

Fleming is a generous performer who can really share with a big crowd, yet she’s never pushy or vulgar. The voice ranges from a delicately negotiated bottom (she can belt when needs be) through a potent middle register up to a radiant top. The high notes are never ugly, but there’s an edge that can cut like a knife. Her three offerings from Canteloube’s Songs of the Auvergne were a masterclass in line and phrasing (Baïlèro and Brezairola) while her pungent elaborating of the country wisdom in Malurous Qu’o Uno Fenno made one long to hear her tackle Berio’s Folksongs. Not to criticise pianist Richard Bado, who delivered sensitive readings all evening, but a little more piano volume in the French song wouldn’t have gone amiss.

With several of her opera arias sitting firmly in ingénue territory, Fleming poignantly revealed the dilemma of many an aging lyric soprano forced to trot out the romantic 17-year-olds well into their 50s. There would have been no complaints on this occasion, however, hearing her perky Jewel Song and an O Mio Babbino Caro complete with spine-tingling held penultimate “pieta” that had the audience in the palm of her hand. Her final encore, an impassioned account of Rusalka’s Song to the Moon, was signature Fleming, lyrical yet shot through with dramatic nuance.

More telling was her deeply felt and beautifully paced evocation of the pain of passing time in the Marschallin’s Da Geht Er Hin from Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier. Her contempt for the boorish Ochs, her self-revelation as she spits out the gossips back-biting comments on “Die alte Frau, die alte Marschallin” and the way she breathes emotion into a phrase like “so viel geheim” (a great mystery) put an opera in miniature on stage before our eyes.

If her excerpts from The King and I seemed not to offer much more than an opportunity for a great opera singer to noodle through some songs she obviously enjoys, the same could not be said of her first encore. Her bluesy rendition of Gershwin’s Summertime, with some thrilling interpolated extra high notes, was pure opera and deservedly brought the house down. In her intro, Fleming mentioned “everyone would come to Australia if it wasn’t so far away”. Let’s hope that distance doesn’t deter her from another visit sooner rather than later.

Renée Fleming sings with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra on September 3 and 5 and is in recital at QPAC in Brisbane on September 7.