While she may have announced her farewell to the traditional opera canon in 2017, bidding adieu to roles such as Tatyana in Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin, Desdemona in Verdi’s Otello, and the Marschallin in Richard Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier, the reports of soprano Renée Fleming’s departure have been greatly exaggerated. At 64, the superstar diva — or, as some have christened her, the “people’s diva” — seems as fiendishly busy as ever, including forays into musical theater; a concert calendar filled with appearances in London, Vienna, and at Carnegie Hall; and a triumphant return to the Metropolitan Opera last year in Kevin Puts’s The Hours.
And in another glorious return, this time to the City of Angels, Fleming capped off Los Angeles Opera’s 2022–2023 season at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion on Saturday with a recital dubbed “An Evening With Renée Fleming.” A two-plus-hour lovefest that also featured the Emerson String Quartet, pianist Simone Dinnerstein, and Broadway and television actor Merle Dandridge as the narrator in the West Coast premiere of André Previn’s final work, Penelope, the concert saw Fleming in a highly emotive mode across a selection of songs.
Penelope, a work left unfinished when Previn died in February 2019 at age 89, was intended to be part of the composer’s 90th birthday celebration but was ultimately completed by his longtime editor and copyist, David Fetherolf, and premiered at the Tanglewood Festival in the summer of that year. Written for Fleming and with a feisty libretto by playwright Tom Stoppard, it’s a retelling of Homer’s Odyssey from the viewpoint of Penelope, Odysseus’s wife.
And while Stoppard’s text offers his signature waggishness and bawdy takes — “There was a new girl in town,” says the narrator. “From her ponytail to her gold-strapped sandals, she had the glow of a goddess and a bottom like a cleft peach” — the music is quintessential Previn, a compelling blend of 20th-century neoromanticism infused with jazzy cadences and chords, making this monodrama soar.
Fleming was in lustrous voice and easily moved between delicate and demanding emotional registers, at the same time expressing Penelope’s more principled objectives, while Dandridge articulated the baser instincts of envy, lust, and skepticism that teemed beneath the surface. The interplay between the female duo, the Emerson Quartet, and Dinnerstein was both provocative and passionate.
As for the Quartet, now in its 47th and final year, violinists Eugene Drucker and Philip Setzer, violist Lawrence Dutton, and cellist Paul Watkins were a well-oiled machine. That is, if a machine could express feelings in the form of plaintive strings, rousing pizzicati, and the elegiac sounds of a cello. Alternating between moodily amplifying Penelope’s emotions and playing in unison with Fleming’s vocalizing, the Emerson is going out on a high note. Dinnerstein’s sensitive piano playing contributed occasional bright colors and arpeggios underlying the vocal lines.
The story ends with husband and wife reunited, as Penelope recounts that “we lay down on our good old bed.” The narrator delivers the final lines: “May Penelope the Wise be my fame and title, and so tell your children; and so farewell.” A worthy piece that demands a second hearing, Penelope is a refreshing addition to Fleming’s massive body of work.
And to say Fleming has an ardent following is an understatement, with the evening’s second half a warm and cheery affair. Deftly accompanied by Dinnerstein, the soprano, in her personable manner, introduced the selections, beginning with five songs from her 2021 album with conductor and pianist Yannick Nézet-Séguin, Voice of Nature: The Anthropocene, which was inspired, said Fleming, by finding solace during the pandemic lockdown through hiking.
The pair of Edvard Grieg works, “Lauf der Welt” (The way of the world) and “Zur Rosenzeit” (To the time of roses), were a lovely fit for Fleming’s voice, particularly in the middle register, with her notes seemingly afloat. Two Gabriel Fauré songs followed: “Les berceaux” (The cradles) and “Au bord de l’eau” (At the water’s edge), the latter about mothers who lose their husbands to sea voyages. Again, the soprano’s rendering was supple and dreamy. Kevin Puts’s “Evening,” a setting of a poem by Dorianne Laux, followed, with longing and languor ever apparent in Fleming’s delivery. Dinnerstein then performed Philip Glass’s 1979 etude Mad Rush, an apt name for the rollicking surge of sound played effortlessly by the musician.
Fleming retook the stage for “I have dreamt,” from Bernard Herrmann’s Wuthering Heights. Never performed during the composer’s lifetime, the opera has a libretto by Herrmann’s first wife, Lucille Fletcher, which in this case proved more captivating than the music. But with her singular style, Fleming delivered the vocal goods with aplomb before wielding a microphone to sing Jerome Kern’s lush “All the Things You Are.” She closed the concert with Previn’s haunting “I want magic,” an aria from A Streetcar Named Desire, which resonated with heartfelt beauty.
And magic is what Fleming gave the audience — in spades — including two encores: Leonard Cohen’s iconic “Hallelujah” and Burt Bacharach’s “What the World Needs Now,” the latter performed with Dandridge. Both selections attested to the timeless quality of the songs and the singer.