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Divine Diva

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It is not often that your high expectations for the visit of a world-famous artist are fully realized.

Opera-star soprano Renée Fleming swept--to accurately describe her gown--into Duke University on Nov. 1 and left us gasping in her wake. With a program spanning nearly 300 years of vocal music, she amply demonstrated why she is currently the most sought-after soprano.

It is unfortunately too common for opera stars to fill their solo recital programs with crowd-pleasing arias. Instead, Fleming put together a varied and original program consisting of styles ranging from Baroque to contemporary, including some rarely heard art songs--and only one potboiler among them (the "Jewel Song" from Gounod's Faust). Yet, despite the variety of musical styles and forms, her program was unified in its seriousness of mood and its theme of nature and night. From "Song to the Moon," from Dvorák's opera Rusalka to the evening landscapes depicted in Fauré's Night Songs, Fleming sang to her strength as a dramatic soprano.

Opening with "Di', cor mio" from Handel's opera Alcina, which she recorded recently, Fleming used the operatic style of Handel's era. It reminded us how awful opera performances must have been in the 18th century, when every singer took the license to add unsanctioned embellishments ad nauseum, usually without consideration of the text. Unfortunately, especially for early music purists, Fleming's ornamentation was too tentative, neither authentic nor authoritative. But this is a minor criticism for performance quality that only went up.

Among her other operatic selections was "I Want Magic," from conductor and composer André Previn's opera A Streetcar Named Desire, which Fleming premiered in 1998 with the San Francisco Opera. In this aria she portrayed the seductively neurotic Blanche DuBois to perfection; she was even able to maintain the thick Southern drawl through the music.

The weak point of the evening was "The Hill Has Something to Say," by contemporary composer Craig Harris, a somewhat pedestrian song elaborated by electronic sounds controlled by Fleming on laptop. The setup paraphernalia--jerry-rigged music and computer stands with big electric cords--was visually distracting and the electronic accompaniment came a day late, sounding like the soundtrack for a Halloween horror show.

Continuing the nocturnal theme through the second half of her program, Fleming gave stirring interpretations of Sergei Rachmaninov's "In the Silence of the Night," "The Waterlily," "Sleep," "Oh Do not Sing to Me" and "Spring Waters." Revered primarily as a composer of piano and orchestral music, Rachmaninov also wrote a large number of songs, which unfortunately are seldom performed or recorded, and Fleming's versions cast a melancholy spell.

The soprano's personal charm came through in the three encores. They started disappointingly with a jazzed-up version of Arlen's hackneyed "Over the Rainbow," but then followed with Richard Strauss' "Cäcilie," one of the great Lieder in the tradition of Schubert and Brahms. She ended with "I've Just Found a New Voice Teacher," a wonderful satire on the dreams, hopes and aspirations of young singers and the pretensions of their mentors.

A few weeks ago we uttered the wish that every concert would include at least one work by a living, breathing composer. To our delight, we got our wish--and then some--in a concert on Oct. 29 at the N.C. Museum of Art, under the auspices of the Sights and Sounds on Sunday concert series, sponsored jointly by the museum and the Raleigh Chamber Music Guild.

The Mountain Chamber Players--flutist Rita Hayes, oboist Yuki Harding, clarinetist David Kirby, French horn player Jennifer Hart Merrell, bassoonist Carol Cope Lowe, pianist Katherine Morgan Palmer--with guest artist soprano Donna Maria Pimental, presented a program of 11 works. All but one were by living composers, and even the lone exception, Wayne Barlow, has been dead for only four years.

Not only were most of the works recent, including one premiere, but some of the composers were actually present and talked about their music. As is to be expected with new works, some did fly; some did not. The best was the first, Vignettes for Woodwind Quintet and Piano by Robert Palmer, followed by two of the Five Images for Piano by Timothy Crist. But, good or not so good, it was a pleasure to spend an afternoon to hear and to judge for ourselves what is being created today. EndBlock

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