Whatever you make of discussing musicians’ concert dress choices, it takes an unusual level of fame before a singer’s jewellery gets its own credit in the programme book. But few living performers can claim to have sung at the Super Bowl, Buckingham Palace and a Nobel peace prize ceremony as well as the world’s major opera houses – never mind four Grammy wins, an indie-rock album and a Tony award-nominated Broadway appearance. US-born soprano Renée Fleming has done it all and more, becoming that rare phenomenon: the classical superstar.
No wonder her appearance with the London Philharmonic Orchestra was an exercise in delayed gratification. Billed as a “gala evening” with the singer, the programme drip-fed Fleming to the packed auditorium, each half opening with the LPO alone. Various audience members crept into their seats not only partway into the first half but also midway through the second.
It was their loss. Under Enrique Mazzola – neat, efficient and absolutely in control – the LPO sparkled, the ensemble taut and orchestral blend luxurious. Dvořák’s Othello Overture Op 93 doesn’t get out much these days; its appearance was the most obvious symptom of a short, strange programme built backwards around Fleming’s choices. It’s not a subtle piece but Mazzola went for the details – minute pianissimos and acres of space in Dvořák’s endless dotted rhythms and triplets.
The ballet music from Verdi’s Otello was a virtuosic balancing act, Mazzola’s deliberate, delicate poise increasing the pay-off of the sequence’s explosive climaxes. Opening the second half, the string-sextet introduction of Strauss’s Capriccio was exceptionally intimate, its lines dancing in slow motion as the rest of the heavyweight orchestra looked on.
And then there was Fleming, welcomed by ecstatic shouts then a silence so still you could hear the air conditioning. The Willow Song and Ave Maria from Verdi’s Otello poured out with astonishing ease, every “Salce!” (“Willow”) of Desdemona’s lament differently coloured and differently painful. In the final scene of Strauss’s Capriccio, Fleming floated on a velvet cushion of orchestral sound, the sheer intimacy of her performance unforgettable even if the top notes were occasionally harsh and her gestures mannered. Her single encore – Strauss’s song “Morgen” – was gorgeous: intensely, quietly peaceful.