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Renée Fleming, arias and scenes, San Francisco Opera Orchestra and Chorus, Donald Runnicles (conductor), San Francisco Opera opening gala, War Memorial opera House, San Francisco, Sept. 10, 2004 (HS)


San Francisco Opera usually opens its season by sandwiching an opera between gala dinner parties and lavish receptions where the well-heeled supporters and patrons of the arts get to show off their gowns and jewels. With half the audience often shuffling in late from dinner and quickly dropping off into an alcohol-induced nap, it makes perfect sense to waive the narrative portion of the evening and keep everyone awake with excerpts in a musical gala. Even better if you can get the current heartthrob of the opera world to star in it.


If there is someone who can carry off an assignment like that with more warmth, panache and sheer star quality than Renée Fleming, I don't know who that might be. The soprano also has a long and impressive history with this company, having come through the ranks of its training company in the 1980s. She made a stunning debut here in 1991 as the Countess in Nozze di Figaro, and among her subsequent nine appearances are several landmarks: the world premieres of Conrad Susa's The Dangerous Liaisons in 1994 and André Previn's A Streetcar Named Desire in 1998, and a 1995 Rusalka in the final performance before the house was extensively rebuilt.


For this opener, she decided to do arias and scenes from operas that she has never sung here, ranging from Handel to Bellini to Massenet to Strauss, with encores from Puccini and Previn. It was not an unalloyed success. After two arias from Handel's Rodelinda, which she is singing this season at the Metropolitan Opera, and the "Casta diva" scene (with chorus) from Bellini's Norma, some of us were standing around at intermission wondering about the wisdom of that choice. But she seemed to gain momentum and confidence as the evening progressed and the repertoire better suited her artistry. By the time she got to the final encore, "I can smell the sea air," the simpler and more affecting of Blanche's two big arias from Streetcar, all was wonderful with the world.


Ritorna, o caro e dolce mio tesoro found her picking her way tentatively through Handel's long, lyrical vocal lines, sometimes landing with queasy pitch. She also fumbled the coloratura of the cabaletta that followed, Mio caro bene. She got through the sequences but she couldn't generate the thrills that come from popping through the torrents of notes like a coiled spring, as true coloratura singers can do. The same sort of miscasting was at work in "Casta diva," which she sang with a decidedly un-bel canto feeling. She caressed the line with something more appropriate for Puccini or Strauss, a sort of warm openness rather than the rigor and purity of bel canto. The results were strange, but oddly affecting. She also seemed to hold back a bit on the cabaletta, Ah! Bello, a me ritorna, which suffered from some of the same willfully anachronistic singing and technical laxness as the Handel earlier.


The chorus sang its role in the Bellini scene much better than the two lackluster chorales from Handel's Semele that preceded it. Later, they broke up the second half with lively performances of the Chorus of Gypsies and Chorus of Matadors from Verdi's La traviata, opening next week.


Two arias from Thaïs got the second half off to a much better start. L'amour est un vertu rare caught the right balance between the title character's experience as a courtesan and her budding realization that there had to be something more to life. Dis moi que je suis belle was a whole drama in miniature, gorgeously sung and wrenching in its conflicting emotions.


The two pieces were separated by a languid, liquid performance of the Meditation, sensitively conducted by music director Donald Runnicles and played by Kay Stern with moving simplicity and purity. The orchestra also made a radiant contribution to the final piece, Moonlight Music and Final Scene from Capriccio (more so than its rhythmically ungainly opening number, the overture to Mozart's Le Nozze di Figaro). In Richard Strauss' autumnal study about whether words or music are paramount in opera. Fleming was totally bewitching as the Countess Madeleine, ruminating on whom to choose, the composer or the poet. This was what the audience came for -- singing and acting of preternatural poise, plangency and utter clarity.


A listener can quibble about her emphasis on lyricism as opposed to sheer power in a Strauss song, the first encore, and the slow tempo that threatened to drag "O mio babbino caro" into indulgent Kiri Te Kanawa territory, but they both had energy and élan in abundance. The final encore, the aria from Streetcar, was sheer magic. After all, it was written for her voice.


Harvey Steiman

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