Historically, manuals of singing often left interpretation and expression until the end — if they got to them at all. Manuel García, for example, one of the greatest of 19th-century teachers, insisted on a singer’s emotional honesty (“the feelings of an audience are excited by our own”), but only after dozens of pages of physiological explication and technical prescription.
No wonder: Singing is physically exacting and elusive, a mercurial instrument (the body) battling implacable foes (frailty and time). So one should say up front: Renée Fleming remains one of the most phenomenally skillful singers around. The soprano’s Celebrity Series recital at Symphony Hall on Sunday displayed it all: the soaring top, the powerful projection, the indefatigable breath control. Like García, Fleming could write a book on maximizing vocal possibilities. But also, like García, it took some time before the expression joined up with the technique.
Robert Schumann’s “Frauenliebe und -leben” (“A Woman's Love and Life”) was, to be sure, beautifully sung — the predominantly low-lying lyricism resonantly rich, Fleming flipping into effervescent high notes with ease. But Fleming and pianist Olga Kern also kept the cycle emotionally easy. Adelbert von Chamisso’s poems are straightforwardly sentimental, following their protagonist through romance, marriage, motherhood, and, finally, widowhood, but Schumann's music — and the translation into song — raises the stakes: Joys become ecstatic, tenderness becomes transcendent, loss becomes tragedy.
This performance, though, was more genteel and restrained than heart-rending. Tempi were on the easygoing side, Kern’s playing understated and deferent, Fleming’s delivery more a third-person observation than a first-person incarnation.
The concert’s second half — songs by Sergei Rachmaninoff and Richard Strauss — was more thoroughly engaging. Certainly Fleming has an affinity for those composers, inhabiting their late-Romantic lavishness with exceptional panache and long, effortless high-wire acts of vocal grandeur and stamina. And, certainly, much of such repertoire’s challenge is realizing the sheer opulence implied by the style and the scores. But the performances also had more emotional and interpretive daring.
The undulating phrases of Rachmaninoff’s “Ne poy, krasavitsa” (“Do not sing, my beauty”) spun out with unusual insistence and despair; “Vesenniye vody” (“Spring waters”) pushed its pronunciations of spring’s advent from exuberant to an almost frenzied — and, given yet another snowstorm swirling outside, appropriate — defiance. Strauss’s “Ruhe, meine Seele!” (“Rest, my soul”) was even more striking, a deliberate, fierce plea for psychological relief. (Kern’s playing, too, rose proportionally to meet challenges, especially in the Rachmaninoff set — which included a solo, the composer’s own transcription of his song “Siren'” (“Lilacs”), delineated with energetic translucence.)
Encores further pushed the dramatic envelope: The devotions of Strauss’s “Cäcilie” amplified into all-consuming infatuation, Gershwin's “Summertime” (“what we're longing for,” Fleming quipped, “a little bit, right now”) unrelentingly interpreted, every phrase tinkered and toyed with. It flirted with being too much, but it turned out to be extravagantly ideal. (The other encores, standards for Fleming — Lerner and Loewe’s “I Could Have Danced All Night” and Puccini’s “O mio babbino caro” — were like expected but welcome party favors.) Technique and expression ended up in service of another pair: risk and reward.
Matthew Guerrieri can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.