Decca Classics
CD B0003160-02; SACD: 475 618-6
1 disc
full price
Recorded in 2003.
Released in 2004.

  • Semele (HWV 58)

    • Oh sleep, why dost thou leave me?

    • Endless pleasure

  • Scipione (HWV 20)

    • Scoglio d'immota fronte

  • Orlando (HWV 31)

    • Quando spieghi i tuoi tormenti

  • Serse (HWV 40)

    • Ombra mai fù

  • Samson (HWV 57)

    • To fleeting pleasures

  • Rinaldo (HWV 7a)

    • Lascia ch'io pianga

    • Dunque i lacci ... Ah! crudel

  • Samson (HWV 57)

    • Let the bright Seraphim

  • Giulio Cesare in Egitto (HWV 17)

    • V'adoro, pupille

    • Da tempeste

  • Rodelinda, regina de’ Langobardi (HWV 19)

    • Ritorna, oh caro e dolce

  • Lotario (HWV 26)

    • Sommo rettor del cielo

    • D'una torbida sorgente

  • Agrippina (HWV 6)

    • Pensieri, voi mi tormentate

    • Bel piacere

  • Alexander Balus (HWV 65)

    • Calm thou ... Convey me to some peaceful shore

Renée Fleming, soprano

Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment (on period instruments)
Conductor: Harry Bicket

Renée Fleming is currently America’s best-known and most feted soprano in the serious classical repertoire, probably only equalled in world recognition value by Angela Gheorghiu.  For all her celebrity, diva glamour and haute couture gowns, however, Fleming often seems like an eager young college student, wanting to do her very best and be recognised for her artistic integrity, a far cry from the self-obsessed eccentric Madama Gheorghiu.

Fleming’s previous recorded foray into Handel was in the name role of Alcina (Erato 8573-80233-2) a performance which drew acclaim from the general operatic audience and more considered criticism from the baroque cognoscenti.  This recording of Handel arias seems designed as a project to show she can do it really, commenting in the liner notes that “the challenge I set for myself was to expose the heart of the music, simply and without artifice”.  To this end she (or Decca) have marshalled the considerable talents of Harry Bicket and the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, not to mention Handel scholar Ellen T. Harris to help choose the program.  Which seems a bit like getting I. M. Pei in to help choose the light fittings. 

To what extent does she succeed in her aim?  The main problem with her Alcina was the way she cluttered up the vocal line with excessive scoops and swoops, thought by some to be a reflection of her interest in jazz vocalism.  Much of that has been eliminated on the current outing, but without artifice it ain’t.  Fleming has a whole raft of mannerisms which are admittedly damped down here, but they are still present, and to this listener distracting.  Most noticeable is a breathiness, sometimes perceptible as a “dramatic” intake of breath before a word, sometimes imparted to the word itself (as in the second “dost” in ‘Sleep why dost thou leave me’).  Then there is a tendency to spread out or flatten the vowel sounds, which makes for a squally or even braying sound and often changes the sound to something else, so we have seraphims in “barning row”, “convey me to some peaceful shar”, “life is shot” and so on.  She often inserts a trill a la Beverley Sills, but here it sounds more like an intensified vibrato than a true trill (compared with, say Joan Sutherland on the one hand, or Julianne Baird on the other).  Speaking of Sutherland, Fleming also has a tendency to slur her consonants, which the Dame notwithstanding is not a good way to produce legato. 

There is no doubt that there is a beautiful voice there, but it is sometimes struggling to break through the mannerisms.  ‘Let the bright seraphim’ shows off the fundamental purity of her voice, but spoils this with spreading notes and audible breaths.  ‘Da tempeste’ is nicely rendered, but in the da capo she breaks up the legato line to essay some rather unwise coloratura.  Similarly, ‘Ritorna o caro e dolce’ is spoilt by a sort of sobbing effect, intended to heighten the emotional intensity no doubt, but that would have been far better achieved by sticking to a pure melodic line and letting the music have a bit more to say for itself.  ‘Ombra mai fù’ is problematic at the best of times, due to its familiarity and strange subject matter:  is the singer supposed to burst with emotion over the damn tree, render it absolutely straight, pack in some irony?  Fleming at least doesn’t treat it as a grand love song, and in fact this is to some extent an underdeveloped effort, with not really sufficient messa di voce in the first phrase, but then she tricks it out with an appoggiatura in the penultimate più. 

To some this will seem like carping, and there are certainly some very positive things about the disc.  The playing of the orchestra under Bicket is excellent.  On a recital disc like this, it is a pleasure to have the full original orchestration of a piece like ‘V’adoro pupille’.  The repertoire is extremely well chosen (thank you Dr Harris), with an admirable mix of the familiar and the barely heard, for instance the beautiful ‘Convey me to some peaceful shore’ from Alexander Balus (although some might wish to seek out Lynne Dawson’s version in the full recording of that work), and the selections from Scipione and Lotario.  There is of course no accounting for taste, and many will like Fleming’s approach to the material.  I suspect however that it will not appeal as much to Handel purists as to the more general opera fancying public, and here at least it does Handel the service of bringing some relatively obscure items to a wider audience.

© Sandra Bowdler - November 2004

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