I’m thrilled to be returning to Ottawa for this performance. One of the joys of the song recital is the freedom to map a journey of styles, languages and periods. While this program is an expression of my own wide-ranging musical tastes, it is also designed in the hope that everyone in the audience will hear something they love, and perhaps discover something new.
Franz Schubert (1797–1828) wrote songs throughout his entire creative life, from his first published composition (“Erlkönig”) of his seventeenth year to his final works written just a few weeks before he died. From his vast catalogue of over six hundred Lieder, all written in the astonishingly short span of just fourteen years (in addition to an enormous amount of other music as well), come many of the most popular and beloved songs ever written.
Singers, pianists, listeners and commentators all expend reams of praise on “An Sylvia.” It is one of only three he composed to Shakespeare texts, this one from Two Gentlemen of Verona. In the play, this genial morning serenade extolling Sylvia’s attributes is sung not by any of her three suitors, but rather by a small chorus outside her window in the best romantic tradition.
Schubert set only two poems by the obscure poet Karl Lappe, and both are gems, “Im Abendrot” is generally regarded as Schubert’s most famous sunset song. He infused this hymn-like response to the heavenly beauty of sunset with a quiet dignity and expressivity that is, in the words of Eusebius Mandyczewski, “breathless with adoration.”
“Die Forelle” is one of Schubert's most perfect creations. The tune has a folksy quality and is continuously underscored by the pictorial piano writing that depicts the trout merrily splashing about in the sparkling waters. This song is known to instrumentalists as well for its use in Schubert’s Trout Quintet, as the basis of the fourth movement’s theme and variations.
“Gretchen am Spinnrade” was the first song Schubert set to Goethe at the age of 17, and one of the most astounding of all manifestations of Schubert’s genius. Its most obvious feature is the perfect integration and unifying effect of the rhythmic figure in the piano, which depicts the whirring of the turning wheel. Gretchen sits at her wheel, totally bewildered, absorbed in the throes of first love (with Faust), suffering the absence of her lover, desperately pining. Yet this is no mere love song. There is a sense of foreboding, even desperation, underscoring Gretchen’s premonition of the tragedy that will soon befall her.
American composer Kevin Puts (b. 1972) is best known for his first opera, Silent Night (2011), which won him the Pulitzer Prize in 2012. Letters from Georgia refers not to the American state, but to the artist Georgia O’Keeffe. The songs are based on O’Keeffe’s expressive letters, written mainly to her eventual husband Alfred Stieglitz and to artist and suffragette Anita Pollitzer. Puts wrote the cycle for, and in close collaboration with, Ms. Fleming, who gave the world premiere just two years ago at her alma mater, the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York.
A keen interest in Brazilian folklore, the country’s colourful history, its native music, and landscapes have inspired a great number of compositions by Brazil’s most famous composer, Heitor Villa-Lobos (1887–1959). Another strong influence was the spirit of Bach, which gave rise to nine Bachianas brasileiras. The “Ária,” surely the most famous single movement in all the Bachianas, comes from the fifth in the series. This music has been used in films like Spy Kids 2: Island of Lost Dreams and Fifty Shades of Grey, and television series like Amazonia and Mozart in the Jungle. Renée Fleming's voice is heard when Julianne Moore's character sings the piece in the film Bel Canto, opening in Canada October 26.
“The Last Rose of Summer” is a poem by the Irish author Thomas Moore, written in 1805 and set to a traditional Irish folk song. It has been used by numerous popular singers from many lands and in innumerable classical compositions, including the opera Martha by the German composer Friedrich von Flotow (1812–1883). In Act II, Lady Harriet is asked to sing a song for the young man (Lionel) who is falling in love with her. The song as sung by Renée Fleming was also used in the 2017 film Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.
Another film from 2017 was The Shape of Water, a dark fantasy drama in which Renée Fleming’s talent was again tapped, this time for the 1943 song “You’ll Never Know.” The song was introduced by Alice Faye in the film Hello, Frisco, Hello and won composer Harry Warren and lyricist Mack Gordon the Oscar® for best song that year.
Ruggero Leoncavallo (1857–1919) is remembered almost entirely on the strength of a single work, Pagliacci (1892). A few years later came an opera based on Henri Murger’s Scènes de la vie de Bohème, an endearing account of the author’s life in the garrets of Paris. Leoncavallo’s Bohème (1897) involves the same cast of characters as in the better-known Puccini opera. It opens with the scene Puccini set as Act II. All the main characters are enjoying a night out at the Café Momus on Christmas Eve. Mimì arrives with Musette to sing a delightful description of her friend (“Musette svaria sulla bocca viva”), a girl who lives for love alone.
Licinio Refice (1883–1954) was an Italian composer and priest. In addition to two operas he composed many songs for soprano Claudia Muzio, including the popular “Ombra di nube” in 1935. Renée Fleming describes it as “such a beautiful, simple statement that deserves to be better known.”
Turandot (1926), set in ancient Peking, was Giacomo Puccini’s (1858–1924) last, unfinished opera as well as his grandest and most spectacular. The Princess Turandot has a heart of ice, made so through an event in the distant past. Her foil is Liù, the simple, young slave girl who loves sincerely and deeply. When Prince Calaf is about to announce his intention to compete for Turandot’s hand, Liù begs him in the touching aria “Signore, ascolta” not to throw his life away. The pentatonic theme is one of several Chinese melodies Puccini incorporated into his opera.
The Italian Francesco Paolo Tosti (1846–1916) wrote no operas, but opera stars from Caruso to the present day have loved singing his popular drawing-room songs and ballads from which he made a fortune. “La Serenata” is one of his best-known.
The next two songs Ms. Fleming sings tonight come from musicals in which Mary Martin starred as the quintessential Rodgers and Hammerstein heroine – Maria in The Sound of Music, and nurse Nellie in South Pacific. The Sound of Music (1959), the last of the R&H productions, played on Broadway for 1,443 performances, but it was the film that really made The Sound of Music internationally famous, in fact, the best-known of all the R&H musicals. Its opening scene of mountain peaks, shot from a helicopter, is at first accompanied only by the sound of silence. Eventually we hear birdsong… then woodwinds… full orchestra… and, in the film’s trademark image, Julie Andrews comes running across the pristine mountain meadow to sing “The hills are alive with the sound of music.” South Pacific (1949), based on James Michener’s Tales of the South Pacific, played on Broadway for nearly five years, won awards galore, and was packed with terrific songs like the one Nellie sings as she finally admits to herself that “I’m in love with a wonderful guy.”
The Broadway show Nine (1982) featured both music and lyrics by Maury Yeston. The story is based partly on Federico Fellini’s film 8½, and focuses on film director Guido Contini, who is dreading his imminent 40th birthday and facing a midlife crisis that prevents him from realizing the film he wants to make. “Unusual Way” comes after Claudia confronts Guido with the fact that their relationship has to end – she is not what he wants her to be. But it was good while it lasted, and “in a very unusual way,” they were right for each other up to now.
The Visit, with music by John Kander and lyrics by Fred Ebb, is of more recent vintage. It had a complicated opening, due to 9/11, and began life in Chicago, not New York. A one-act version finally reached Broadway in April 2015. This thriller, based on the play by Friedrich Dürrenmatt, follows the story of a ridiculously wealthy woman who returns to her home town with an offer to save it from financial disaster if the townspeople will allow the murder of the man who jilted her years ago. She makes her offer to the song “Winter.” Later in the show, she reflects on the past and on the circumstances that have led her to do this (“Love and Love Alone”).
Ms. Fleming’s glamorous recital closes with “The Glamorous Life” from A Little Night Music (1973), with music and lyrics by “the greatest and perhaps best-known artist in the American musical theater” (Frank Rich, New York Times), Stephen Sondheim (now 88 years old). Inspired by Ingmar Bergman’s film Smiles of a Summer Night, the play is a story of romantic entanglements centered on Désirée Armfeldt, a touring actress whose career requires her to leave her daughter behind with the child’s grandmother. “The Glamorous Life” was originally sung by all three women and the chorus. For Ms. Fleming, who combined her operatic career with raising two daughters, Desirée just might be a soprano, and the group number (in time-honored diva fashion) is distilled to a monologue.
By Robert Markow