sat. night @the vets

Renee Fleming - photo by Decca/Andrew Eccles

“We can listen to this stuff in our cars, or on our computers – but isn’t it more fun together?”

That’s an understatement. Especially when coming from Renée Fleming, tonight’s guest soloist with the Rhode Island Philharmonic and its conductor, Larry Rachleff.

The occasion was the “re-introduction” of Veterans Memorial Auditorium (re-branded these days as “the VETS“), the gorgeous 62-year old performance space that will now serve both the Providence Performing Arts Center (PPAC) and the Philharmonic.

The Auditorium has an interesting history, having begun as a Rhode Island Freemasons project in 1927 and then finally opening in 1950 after work stoppages during the Depression and the Second World War. Since then the stage has welcomed everyone Luciano Pavarotti and Tony Bennett to – tonight, making her Rhode Island debut, Ms. Fleming. She mentioned that, inspiring a chuckle from the audience when she said in her comfortable way, “it’s nice to still be able to have a debut…”

I didn’t know what the program was before arriving there tonight. It didn’t really matter, I’ve seen Fleming in concert before and I knew I wanted to be at this one regardless. So when I finally got a program and checked out the lineup I was happy to see a good mix of crowd-pleasers on there along with a couple of more unusual selections. Ravel’s song cycle Shéhérazade, for example, is a standard work among singers but much less so in the concert hall. An absolute delight to hear performed live, by artists who revel in the richness of Ravel’s orchestration and still allow its transparency to shine. The woodwinds in particular sounded lovely, with every note coming through clearly thanks in part to the acoustic paneling now enveloping the stage’s interior space. And it’s not very often a conductor breaks a baton during the performance, as Rachleff did during the program opener – nothing like the rousing Hector Berlioz Roman Carnival Overture to make that happen!

Among the more familiar works were the “jewel song” aria from Charles Gounod’s Faust, Tosca’s Vissi d’arte, and Vilja’s song from Franz Lehar’s The Merry Widow. Fleming staples, all, and wonderfully performed with great spirit, charm, and (of course) proficiency. But the real highlight for me came shortly into the second half of the program, with Antonín Dvořák’s sublime “Song to the Moon” from Rusalka. Long have I thought of this as a Fleming specialty piece, and she confirmed that connection tonight when she introduced it by calling it her “signature aria”. If there is a single particular attribute she gives to that aria, it is her warmth. Rusalka may be a water spirit but when Renée Fleming inhabits the character, Rusalka is infused with the very touch of humanity she strives for, in the opera’s story.

And then as if the concert content wasn’t enough, the night ended with three sparkling encores – another showstopper, Giaccomo Puccini’s “O mio babbino caro” (from Gianni Schicchi), and two songs from Leonard Bernstein’s Westside Story – “I Feel Pretty”, and “Somewhere”.

While the first phase of The Vets’ (now completed) renovation primarily focused on infrastructural and ‘back stage’ improvements, the next stage is said to promise more publicly visible and tangible improvements in accommodations and other areas. When that’s done we can hope that maybe Ms. Fleming will be invited to return for a reprise of tonight’s superb “re-dedication” gala performance.

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