Sunday, April 09, 2017

McGrath on Fleming

Almost ten years ago, Charles McGrath had an article in the NY Times about Anna Netrebko that irritated me so much that I think I stopped reading somewhere on the first page, after he stated or implied that before the modern era, no opera singers could act. Okay, maybe Callas? But otherwise, acting was an art discovered only by recent singers.

Now he's got a big gushy piece about Renée Fleming. I have to note that alone of the three pieces that were published this week about her, his more or less says that her upcoming Met appearances as the Marschallin will be her last stage appearances. Well, that's been the rumor for the last year or two, plus the other articles say she will continue to appear in recital. And if you look at her own schedule, you'll see that they are her only stage appearances there. Otherwise, it's concerts, galas, and recitals as far as the eye can see.

There's an awful lot to disagree with in the Fleming article: her departure is only a watershed if you think she sells out every ticket in the house (I am not convinced) or if you think she is an extremely important singer. Well, look at the repertory she has sung, which has been central lyric roles, very little of it unusual. She has sung little new or contemporary music. She hasn't had the huge and varied repertory that some singers have. There's a photo of her singing "Ain't it a pretty night" from Susannah - did she ever appear in the complete opera? The answer is yes, she did, in a single run at the Met. Her other appearances in 20th c. opera were Corigliano's The Ghosts of Versailles, Previn's A Streetcar Named Desire, and Susa's The Dangerous LiaisonsI'm willing to bet not, especially since the article states outright that in the 90s she and her management team made a decision for her to limit her repertory. [This paragraph updated to include full information about Fleming's appearances in comparatively recently operas.]

Netrebko and Kaufmann sell out the house, no doubt, especially Kaufmann (though we will probably never see him in the US again).

I'm pretty sure that it was Fleming's own publicists who managed to tag her as "the people's diva," and who managed to get her on the Super Bowl and lots of TV shows. That's they're job, after all.

McGrath mentions Fleming's "early talent" in jazz. This was certainly a road not taken; I have personally never thought Fleming had much of a feel for swinging rhythm and can't quite imagine her relaxing enough to really let down her hair in jazz. And by not much of a feel, I mean, not much in the way of rubato in her opera singing.

Then there's this appallingly ignorant statement, in the list of her roles:
...the title role in Dvorak’s “Rusalka” (an opera that was practically unheard-of until Ms. Fleming brought it back into the repertory)...
First thing is, Rusalka has never been out of the repertory in Czech-speaking areas. Second thing, it has never been in, or brought back into, the repertory (that is, a piece that is regularly performed) in the US. (Take a look at the opera's recent and forthcoming performance history at Operabase.) Thus, McGrath's phrasing is simply bizarre.

Fleming sang around 20 performances of it at the Met and another half-dozen or so at SF. The SF performances were around 20 years ago, too; the Met 20 were scattered over 2 or 3 runs or the opera over the years. I do not know which other companies she sang it with, but not enough to drag it into the repertory, let alone "back into" the repertory, where it never was: the first Met performances were with Gabriela Benackova, in 1993, and at SF with Fleming. SF hasn't revived it and doesn't own a production.

But the big problem here is that McGrath is giving her credit for something she doesn't have any real responsibility for. She could have been an advocate for Czech opera in the US, but she hasn't been.

I think McGrath might be confused here:
Ms. Fleming doesn’t have much interest in becoming a figure like Adelina Patti, the hugely popular 19th- and early-20th-century opera star who went around, like Cher, giving farewell concerts for 20 years after she “retired.”
I'm really pretty sure that he's thinking of Nellie Melba.


Cameron Kelsall said...

Your blog post is a very astute appraisal of the articles many flaws. That said, Fleming did sing Susannah at the Met in a 7-performance run in 1999--and it's doubtful this particular opera would have made it to the Met for any other artist.

There was a time when Fleming's name could guarantee a sold-out house at the Met; chiefly, the early part of this century, when she did her first Traviatas and whatnot. I recall the Onegin with Hvorostovsky was completely sold out prior to the first performance (it was my first standing room experience in the house). But her ability to sell tickets cooled in recent years, even when she's appeared in new productions.

Anonymous said...

You should give Fleming credit for doing Andre Previn's Streetcar Named Desire and Conrad Susa's Dangerous Liaisons in SF, and also for doing Louise. And she has remained faithful to the Previn (even though it's not much of an opera), up to a concert performance of it in LA a couple of years ago. She has had a more diverse career than you indicate.

Still, she should have at least done Jenufa or Katya Kabanova.

Lisa Hirsch said...

I've updated the post to give Fleming full credit for her appearances in four recent operas. Not sure what the credit is for Louise - I saw it, and it was an interesting rarity, for sure. But my primary thought is along the lines of "Compare with Racette," who has to her credit three Picker premieres, Moravec's The Letter, Cold Sassy Tree, Susannah, Jenufa, Katya, Lady MacBeth, Ghosts of Versailles, La voix humaine, the upcoming The Consul, and Salome.