Definition of the word "brilliant": extraordinarily full of light and sparkling; shining brightly; vivid and bright in color; magnificent, glorious; outstandingly talented and/or intelligent; a diamond of the finest cut with many facets
I haven't always been a fan of opera, or its singers. And, even now, I am quite particular in what divas I choose to listen to. My exposure has been recent, within the last 20 years, and limited: Maria Callas, Mirella Freni, Montserrat Caballe, and Joan Sutherland. More recently, Catherine Malfitano on TV's Tosca and in person at a San Francisco Opera performance of Madama Butterfly. But Wednesday night September 1st on Arizona PBS, the most brilliant light I have ever seen or heard startled me and took me captive--Renee Fleming, the "reigning American soprano".
The program: Great Performances: Renee Fleming & Dimitri Hvorostovsky: A Musical Odyssey in St. Petersberg. Fleming is our hostess for the delicious trip into St. Petersberg, called the Venice of the north with its palaces, canals, and fountains. And her diction is a crystal clear in her narration of history, architecture, monarchs, and art as it is in her vocal renderings of operatic arias in perfect Italian, French, German, Russian, and Czech!
The show opens with Renee and Dimitri performing the final duet from Il Trovatore by Giuseppe Verdi in the ballroom of Imperial Palace of the Yusupov, Constantine Orbelian conducting The State Hermitage Orchestra. The room is bright, regal, and gilded. So is Fleming, who is dressed in a matte-finish gold gown, low-cut, draping from one shoulder, the hem cut diagonally, exposing a triangle of black web petticoat. Her light-brown hair is pulled up, blonde-streaked wisps descending to frame her face and highlight large, gold, lacey, shimmering orbs of earring that dazzle with every move. Dramatic! Stunning!
Dimitri is white-haired, tall, and handsome in his tuxedo. But, my God! Nothing can compete! Nothing can upstage the stunning vision of Renee Fleming in that dress before she even sings a note! When she does open her mouth, and that unbelievablly caressing voice comes out, everything and everyone else fade away. There is nothing and no one in the world but Renee Fleming and her brilliance!
Clutching her breast she sings, "As I lie here at your feet...Trample on my corpse." The music, the drama pulses in every fiber of her being. Her voice, her notes lift me up, out of my body to a higher level of awareness. Fleming is clear, she's strong, she's tender, and astoundingly agile on each ascent and descent of the scale in this triathlon, hitting every note right in the center! All thrilling on their own, but she's an actress, too! So add her physical expression: she bends and turns and rocks and squeezes out the passion, all with suppleness and grace and a power that whirls me like a tempest into the very center of her performance!
Why have I never seen Renee Fleming perform before??
Having Ms. Fleming as my personal guide through St. Petersburg is sublime! It is a city I have wanted to visit since seeing another PBS special years ago on The Hermitage and its treasures of art, acquired in the main by Catherine the Great, Empress of Russia from 1762-96. As a hostess, tour guide, and history teacher Renee Fleming--in black pantsuit with short tailored blazer over a splash of white with long, shimmery, silver and gold necklace, hair falling to her shoulders now--is chic, articulate, confident,warm and enthusiastic, with an oh, so engaging smile, on her oh, so beautiful face!
The piece de resistance, the creme de la creme, the high point for me came in the Yusupov Palace, in "an exquisite...jewel-box of a theater," where Clara Schumann, Franz Liszt, and Anna Pavlova performed in years gone by. A recital by each singer, solo, with piano accompaniment. Dimitri goes first, dressed in black shirt and pants--very Russian; sings beautifully, powerfully, if a bit wooden in performance. Then...Two women walk onstage together, the tall, slender, short-haired blonde in the thin-strapped, black-sequined, floor-length dress and The Diva, her hair falling to her shoulders, back from her face; long, slim, diamond earrings glistening. The ladies nod to each other. The tall, slender, short-haired blonde sits at the white, inlaid-marble grand piano and begins to play. Head tilted to left, The Diva waits in reverie dressed in a rich, ruby-red, off-one-shoulder lush gown with a lacy, ivory-colored stole draping her torso, slipping around her arms, and in full-flare cascading to her feet. Renee Fleming is backlit by a huge wall of a painting: a child-nymph, bare amidst a luscious garden of greenery and flowers. The child-nymph's lips kiss The Diva's right shoulder. The Diva's lipstick matches her rich ruby-red dress, which matches the color of the full-petaled roses in the luscious garden behind.
This is the moment.
The Diva--looking serene, ripe, gorgeous. She opens her mouth and begins to sing "Don't Sing to Me Fair Maiden" by Sergei Rachmaninov. She is uncluttered, uninterrupted by other singers, conductor, musicians, save the pianist. Renee Fleming. Alone. Close-up. Her eyes announcing in all directions, leaving no one in the room untouched. The Diva's second selection is also by Rachmaninov: Spring Waters. "Spring is coming, is coming. We are the young Spring's messengers..." she sings in creamy tones with immaculate technique. Alone with the music, alone in the frame--save the child-nymph kissing her right shoulder and the flowers in full-petal--Renee Fleming, the Reigning American Soprano, IS the messenger of ALL that is warm and vibrant and elegant and gifted and passionate and beautiful and BRILLIANT!