Concert Review: Soprano Renée Fleming and Pianist Inon Barnatan — Voices of Nature

By Susan Miron

It is always a thrill to be in the audience when the legendary American soprano Renée Fleming performs.

Renée Fleming and Inon Barnatan at Boston’s Symphony Hall. Photo: Robert Torres/Celebrity Series of Boston

The beloved, widely acclaimed American soprano Renée Fleming appeared in a most unusual Celebrity Series program on Sunday. Boston’s Symphony Hall was jam-packed with Fleming worshipers, and rightly so. Fleming, or Renée as she is known, has not made a Celebrity Series appearance since 2015. (Her 2013 duo appearance with mezzo-soprano Susan Graham was one of my favorite concerts ever.) Accompanying her was the wonderful pianist Inon Barnatan, as well as a vast array of animals, fish, and birds. This project occurred to Fleming after the considerable success of her album Voice of Nature: The Anthropocene, her 2023 Grammy-winning CD comprised of Romantic and contemporary songs that examined humanity’s relationship with the natural world in the face of climate change. This live program evolved out of that recording. Fleming was enthusiastically assisted in this effort by the National Geographic Society, which created a breathtaking 30-minute video of sumptuous scenery that came very close to upstaging the diva in the first half of the program.

Renowned for her fabulous gowns, Fleming wore a housecoat-looking lilac dress which she later said made her look like Barbie’s mother. Sunday’s program featured a large screen filled with beautiful — if often upsetting (polar bears on icebergs breaking up, etc.) — examples of NGS’s amazing nature photography. The climate crisis project was dreamed up during the pandemic: the point is to dramatize humanity’s deleterious relationship with the natural world, which is both our inspiration and our victim. The images of nature and its various inhabitants were stirring and breathtaking, to the point that they pretty much stole the show from the two humans on the stage. Who wouldn’t end up taking a back seat to sumptuous views of mountains, glaciers, and underwater, or to footage of photogenic animals, fish, and birds? The music selections included nature-themed songs by Nico Muly, Handel,  Björk, Kevin Puts, and the beautiful “Baïléro” from Songs of the Auvergne Joseph Canteloube. Alas, it ended with Burt Bacharach’s saccharine “What the World Needs Now.”

Some background for those who are unfamiliar with the famously gorgeous (hair, gowns, voice) soprano Renée Fleming. She has been a towering presence in the music world for the past 40 years; among other illustrious accomplishments, she has been a superstar of the Metropolitan Opera, where she was the only woman to be given an Opening Night at the Met to herself to showcase her gifts. Fans have created a plethora of homages: an extravagant dessert, “La Diva Renée,”  the Renée Fleming Iris, sculpture, designer jewelry, and countless other signs of adoration. The world’s most renowned designers have made her drop-dead gorgeous gowns. President Obama dubbed her “The People’s Diva.” Fleming was the first classical artist ever to sing “The Star-Spangled Banner” at the Super Bowl — as well as at the Nobel Peace Prize Ceremony.  She has presented her program “Music and Mind” in over 50 cities worldwide. Fleming has become a leading advocate for research that probes the intersection of the arts, health, and neuroscience. On Sunday she explained her ambitious pursuits to her minions in this way: “I like to spread my wings and see what they do.”

The concert’s second half was more conventional and, with the exception of the dazzling scenery, more enjoyable. Fleming’s voice “at an undisclosed age” (she is 65 next week) is still touchingly beautiful. She wore a fabulous dark orange sparkling gown and laughed at its enthused reception: “I still love gown applause.” She is as likable a diva as ever. Barnatan’s solo turns were both played beautifully and were among the concert’s highlights: Ravel’s dazzling “Jeux d’eau” and “Presto” from Rachmaniinoff’s “Moments Musicaux.” The duo performed two songs by Fauré, as well as the song everyone loves, which Fleming recorded on her very first CD, Puccini’s “O mio babbino caro.” Other chestnuts included Jerome Kern’s “All the Things You Are,” the lineup culminating in an encore sing-along of Leonard Cohen’s ubiquitous “Hallelujah.” It is a song that everyone but me seemed to relish. But so what? It is always a thrill to be in the audience when Renée Fleming performs. Here is a singer who, even when she talks, mesmerizes audiences.

Susan Miron, a harpist, has been a book reviewer for over 30 years for a large variety of literary publications and newspapers. Her fields of expertise were East and Central European, Irish, and Israeli literature. Susan covers classical music for the Arts Fuse and the Boston Musical Intelligencer.

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