A Prom of Transformation and Transcendence: Renée Fleming and the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra

By Claire Seymour for Opera Today

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Prom 61: Renée Fleming sings Strauss, with the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Sakari Oramo at the Royal Albert Hall on Wednesday 30 Aug. 2017. Photo by Mark Allan

‘We are talking now of summer evenings in Knoxville, Tennessee, in the time
that I lived there so successfully disguised to myself as a child’, begins
the lyrical prose-poem by James Agee from which Barber drew his text, and
which the composer said, ‘reminded me so much of similar evenings when I
was a child at home’.

[1]

But, Knoxville is not simply a recollection of the synaesthetic
sights, sounds and scents of a long, warm Southern evening – a horse-drawn
buggy, clanging streetcars, strolling couples, quilts spread on dewy lawns;
it presents a progression from the wide-eyed innocence of a child’s
response to their immediate surroundings, through a growing appreciation of
the darkness and dangers of the wider world, to an anxious striving for
maturity and selfhood. And, the challenge for the soprano performing this
work – which is accompanied by chamber orchestra of strings, seven
woodwind, harp and triangle, in Barber’s revised scoring – is to
communicate a vision which is unaffected and unworldly as well as
instinctively knowing and fathoming.

The capaciousness of the Royal Albert Hall did not make Renée Fleming’s
task any easier, as she introduced us to the dusky vista, ‘that time of
evening when people sit on their porches, rocking gently and talking
gently’. Her beautifully limpid soprano did not, initially, carry with
sufficient presence to draw those in the furthest reaches into the tale
(though I suspect listeners at home had a different experience, with the
BBC engineers working their magic). But, as the blue of night deepened and
the child’s awareness grew in profundity and urgency, Fleming’s soprano
gleamed, as sumptuous and silvery as her opulent grey frock, conveying a
burgeoning intensity of feeling which climaxed thrillingly in the final
section, ‘The stars are wide and alive’.

Not all of the score’s magical moments came off, though. Following the
departure of the bellowing, blasting iron of the passing streetcar,
Fleming’s first ascent to the high peak of ‘Now is the night one blue dew’
felt tentative, as she struggled to move cleanly onto the successive rising
notes, using a wide vibrato to sustain them. But, in the repetition of the
phrase the Bb glistened incisively and with controlled rapture. And, she
used varied colour to convey first the painful recognition of human
transience – ‘By some chance, here they are, all on this earth; and who
shall ever tell the sorrow of being on this earth, lying, on quilts, on the
grass, in a summer evening, among the sounds of the night.’ and
then, sinking low and finding rich vocal layers, the consoling power of
prayer: ‘My God bless my people … oh, remember them kindly in their time of
trouble; and in the hour of their taking away. The pentatonic theme played
the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra’s horn-player, and the
woodwind’s after-word, imbued this moment with stillness and spirituality.

Fleming didn’t always make the most of the text, either. Agee’s words are
themselves deeply musical, in syntax and in sound. He wrote of his
prose-poetry, ‘I want to write symphonies … so that it flows naturally, and
yet … has a discernible symmetry and a very definite musical quality’

[2]

. And, we needed more clarity for the sounds of the South to really
communicate, through Agee’s alliteration (‘Low on the length of lawns …’;
‘still fainter; fainting, lifting; lifts, faints foregone: forgotten’) and
the circling rhythmic lilt which captures man’s ephemerality (‘People go
by; things go by.’; ‘There are not talking much, and the talk is quiet, of
nothing in particular, of nothing at all in particular, of nothing at
all.’). But, Fleming did successfully contrast the episodes which are
speech-like – she tripped easily through the family account, ‘One is an
artist, he is living at home. One is a musician, she is living at home.’ –
and the genuinely ‘song-like’ passages.

Throughout, the poetic expansiveness of conductor Sakari Oramo’s generous
gestures drew warm, detailed, truly sensitive playing from the visiting
Swedish Orchestra, whose woodwind players conjured a wonderful pastoral
ambience supported by the flowing reiteration of Barber’s underlying
rocking momentum. The clangour and stridency of the streetcar’s intrusion
was painted with precision, the jagged strings, stringent trumpet and
frequent sparks and growls leaving no doubt of the threat posed by
modernity.

Greater consolation was offered by Fleming’s encore, ‘Sure on This Shining
Night’, Barber’s setting of an untitled poem by Agee which formed the third
song in the Four Songs Op.13 of 1940. Fleming’s seamless lyricism
was equalled by that of the cellos and horn, who relished their cantilena melodies, and complemented by the gently pulsing chordal
accompaniment.

There was more magic and moonlit transcendence after the interval when
Fleming returned to sing the ‘Transformation Scene’ from Strauss’s Daphne, in which Apollo, relinquishing his desire, grants Daphne
the union with nature for which she yearns. Asking Zeus to transform Daphne
into a laurel tree (effected here by Fleming’s departure, her subsequent
wordless undulations floating ethereally from off-stage), Apollo enables
her to escape from the corruption of the earthly world. I’m not sure that
Fleming’s pitching of the sliding chromatic melodies was entirely or
consistently accurate, but the lingering luxuriousness of her soprano
remains the perfect medium through which to convey the ecstasy of her paean
to everlasting love. The Stockholmers relished the sonic radiance of
Strauss’s kaleidoscopic score, creating a dizzying colour-scape which swept
the listener into fantastical lands.

The serenity of Daphne’s new beginning was extended in a second encore,
Strauss’s ‘Morgen’ Op.27 No.4 – a serenity to which Lauren Stephenson’s
gently trembling harp and Andrej Power’s blissful violin solo contributed
in no small part.

The concert had begun with another fusion of landscape and memory, Swedish
composer Andrea Tarrodi’s Liguria (2012) being, in her own words,
a ‘walking tour’ among the small villages of the Ligurian coast. The six
linked sections – Onde [Waves], Orrizonte [Horizon], Sentiero azzurro
[Bluth Path], Colori [Colours], Montagne [Mountain] and Stelle [Stars] –
formed a beguiling canvas of diverse impressions, from Manarola’s clock
towers to Monterosso’s parasol-strewn sands, from Vernazza’s cliffs to
another starry night sky, this time above Corniglia.

At the close of Knoxville, we are troubled by the child’s
loneliness: sleep smiles and ‘draws me unto her … but will not ever tell me
who I am’. The final work of the programme, Nielsen’s Second Symphony (‘The
Four Temperaments’) is also in some ways a search for what it is to be
human. Led now by co-concert master Joakim Svenheden – there was a lot of
democratic seat-swapping in this concert – the RSPO gave an absolutely
captivating performance, during which they and their conductor seemed to be
smiling, both figuratively and literally. No doubt there will be further
smiles when Oramo returns with the BBC Symphony Orchestra, of which he is
also chief conductor, for the Last Night next week.

Claire Seymour

Prom 61: Andrea Tarrodi – Liguria (UK premiere); Samuel Barber –Knoxville: Summer of 1915, Op.24; Richard Strauss – Daphne (Transformation Scene, ‘Ich komme – ich komme’), Carl
Nielsen – Symphony No.2 (‘The Four Temperaments’)

Renée Fleming (soprano), Sakari Oramo (conductor), Royal Stockholm
Philharmonic Orchestra

Royal Albert Hall, London; Wednesday 30th August 2017



[1]

In interview with James Fassett, cited in Samuel Barber: The Composer and his Music, Barbara B.
Heyman (1994), 279.


[2]

Letter, 19th November 1930, cited in Letters of James Agee to Father Flye (1962).

Photo credit: Mark Allan
Source: Opera Today