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La Diva Renee

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The New York Times offers another (in my opinion, deservingly) fawning look at America’s Operatic Sweetheart, Renee Fleming, on the occasion of her performance in Il Pirata at the Met.

    America’s love affair with Ms. Fleming – the world’s – expresses itself not only in top fees, ovations and record sales. Daniel Boulud, the master chef of Daniel, which ranks among the half-dozen top restaurants of New York, has whipped up a delirious chocolate dessert in her honor, La Diva Renee.

    Bon appétit. And mark your calendars: in Australia – home of the golden-age diva Nellie Melba, remembered for the dressed-up peach – a newly hybridized iris has been named the Renee Fleming. Its American introduction has been set for June 2004, in Rochester. On a more solemn note, Ms. Fleming appeared before President Bush, heroes of Sept. 11 and an NBC viewing audience in the recent superstar Concert for America at the Kennedy Center, singing “You’ll Never Walk Alone.”

    Unlike her forerunners, Ms. Fleming has had no ready-made forum for her conquests. Classical artists used to have regular network exposure in prime-time showcases – long gone – like “The Bell Telephone Hour” and “The Voice of Firestone.” It’s the old story. The world of music, once whole, has splintered beyond hope of redemption. But not for Ms. Fleming.

    “I know that my voice reaches people,” she added, “but can I reach audiences as deeply with my acting as with my singing? If not, why not? If not, I will have failed. You know the expression ‘heartstrings’? There’s a reason that was created.” Touching the heartstrings: that is Ms. Fleming’s goal. Just when it seems within grasp, it recedes, like a mirage. The calling of the perfectionist is not easy.

    Tomorrow evening, Ms. Fleming will appear at the Metropolitan Opera in Bellini’s “Pirata,” an obscure tragedy in the florid, highly embellished bel canto style. Mounted at her request, the new production (the Met’s first) is directed by John Copley in designs by John Conklin. The opera, known today to few but devotees of the Callas cult, takes place in 13th-century Sicily, where the pirate Gualtiero is tossed ashore to discover Imogene, his long-lost love, now married to his ancient enemy Ernesto, Duke of Caldora. Imogene accepted Ernesto’s hand against her will, to save the life of her father, once a political ally of Gualtiero’s in dynastic wars best left to a footnote. She is also the mother of Ernesto’s child.
    Enthusiastic as Ms. Fleming is at the prospect of Imogene in a “vise grip” between Marcello Giordani’s Gualtiero and Dwayne Croft’s Ernesto, what thrills her most is Imogene’s concluding mad scene. By this point, Gualtiero has felled Ernesto in battle, then surrendered to an offstage judiciary that is in the process of condemning him to the block.

    The “Pirata” mad scene is prominently featured on Ms. Fleming’s new Decca CD “Bel Canto,” which shot straight to the No. 1 spot not only on Billboard’s classical chart but also at Tower Records Lincoln Center, where it overtook new releases by Bruce Springsteen, Coldplay and the Dixie Chicks. (But then, the Lincoln Center demographics may be a little skewed.)

Personally, I’m still eagerly awaiting her long-discussed but as-yet-unproduced recording of jazz standards, about which she whetted my appetite during a swinging 60 minutes session a few years back.

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