In light of the operatic world's eagerness to project an image of hipness and currency in the early 2000s, Renée Fleming's Homage: The Age of the Diva could have seemed anachronistic or reactionary in its unabashed celebration of the past, especially coming from an artist that released recordings of contemporary song cycles and vocal jazz in the preceding year. Homage is draped in the iconography, history, and long-dormant repertory of a group of singers whose names are familiar only to opera aficionados: Emmy Destinn, Magda Olivero, Mary Garden, and Rosa Ponselle, to name a few. Mostly born in the late nineteenth century (Olivero was born in 1912), these women exist for most people only as scratchy voices on tinny old recordings. But in their day they were luminous women, renowned for their beauty, their voices, and their dramatic presence. More importantly, they were the stars that introduced the world to a great many new operas by Giacomo Puccini, Richard Strauss, and Erich Korngold; in other words, they were an integral part of the new music scene, and vehicles through which music lovers discovered new operas. They were trendsetters.
So, in fact, Fleming's Homage is not so much a fond backwards glance as it is an affirmation of the very notion, and the role, of the "diva." Whether this is a conscious effort on her part to connect herself to a long tradition of leading women on stage who have affected change -- including not only the women honored on this recording, but also the likes of Maria Callas, who reinvigorated the bel canto repertory during her career, and Marilyn Horne, who did much the same for Handel and Rossini -- or simply a reflection of her innate curiosity is besides the point. The result is an opportunity to enjoy a genuine rarity among operatic aria recordings: an album containing a substantial amount of music you haven't heard before. And in that way, it is also a reminder of the surest way to keep classical music and opera fresh and new. Much like artworks in museums and great works of literature from times past, every piece of music is new when you experience it for the first time.
All of the selections on Homage were either premiered by or strongly associated with one of the divas discussed, and they run the gamut of styles that existed within opera in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Written in Russian, Czech, German, French, and Italian, they cover as wide a range of languages as you're likely to encounter on a recital disc by a single singer. Linguistic facility is one of Fleming's particular gifts, and she's smart to showcase it as often as she can, especially because it opens up areas of operatic repertoire that other sopranos rarely touch, but which are exceedingly beautiful. Generally speaking, the singing on Homage represents Fleming at her best, when the distinctive tonal richness of her voice is coupled with a dramatic urgency and almost compulsive need to communicate; concern for sheer beauty of tone is mostly thrown aside in favor of musical excitement and risk-taking. For that reason, music that combines lushness with complexity -- arguably the one quality that binds most of the repertory heard here -- is the most successful. Simplicity is more elusive for Fleming as a performer, and the occasional moments (or in one case, an entire aria...more on that later) that call for it are occasionally overcooked.
The excerpt from Smetana's Dalibor is a genuine roof-raiser, and as clear an example as you'll find of what Richard Wagner's music would have sounded like had he been born Czech. The same sweeping orchestrations and dramatic structures that underpin Wagner's music are heard here, but reorganized to accommodate the distinctive accenting of the Czech language, which always stresses the first syllable of words. The result is something beholden to the German master, and yet wholly Czech at the same time. Janácek's Jenufa is more familiar to audiences, having received a number of excellent productions and recordings in recent years, and it is also a more distinctly modern piece in its musical language. Fleming wraps herself around the pointed inflections and subtle melodic fragments with a committed dramatic sense.
The Russian delegation on Homage consists of genuinely obscure pieces by Tchaikovsky and Rimsky-Korsakov. Nataliya's first-act aria from Tchaikovsky's Oprichnik is instantly recognizable as Tchaikovsky for its luxuriant orchestration, large-scale structure through melody, and ecstatic melancholy. If this most popular (and it is, as exceedingly unpopular things go) excerpt from the opera is at all representative of the piece as a whole, then it deserves to be revived. "Tsvetï moi!" from Rimsky-Korsakov's Servilia is even more convincing -- a genuinely through-composed scene that holds itself together through a natural-yet-melodious approach to text setting and sense of dramatic pacing. It may again raise the question in your mind: why aren't these operas produced more often?
Few composers announce themselves so clearly through harmony as Erich Korngold -- the only composer represented twice on Homage -- does with "Ich ging zu ihm" from his Das Wunder der Heliane. Anyone familiar with his Die tote Stadt will instantly recognize the composer's tendency to tease the ear with brief moments of lushness and satisfaction that run away before they can be fully appreciated. "Ich soll ihn niemals" from his even-more-obscure Die Kathrin is less familiar in style at first, branching as it does into more fully modern tonal vocabulary and sensibilities. But his fondness for the harp and inability to resist a heart-melting tune eventually betray him. The same "haven't we met before?" quality characterizes Richard Strauss' one contribution to Homage: "Wie umbigst du mich mit Frieden," which is gratifyingly preceded by an extended orchestral interlude. It is during the interlude that you suddenly remember the rich, taut, and always urgent direction of Valery Gergiev leading the Mariinsky Theatre Orchestra. Gergiev tends to be front and center on his recordings, usually pictured on the cover (with requisite 5 o'clock shadow and tousled hair), so a package completely devoid of his visage and personality is rare. But Homage is in every way typical of his work -- musically vital, beautiful but never merely pretty, weighty, and always in motion -- and it is perhaps the best partnership Renée Fleming has enjoyed since her work with Patrick Summers on Bel Canto.
Gounod's "Le ciel rayonne...Ô légère hirondelle" from Mireille is the one track on Homage likely to make you think your CD changer has flipped to a new disc, having been written a half century earlier than most of the other content, with the notable exception of the Verdi. Viewed from that perspective it is the one programming misstep, sticking out stylistically like a sore thumb. But Fleming's performance is so youthful and bell-like in tone, and so much fun as she clips through the intricate runs and ornaments that characterize Gounod's writing for the soprano voice, that it quickly becomes one of the more memorable tracks. Massenet's "J'ai verse" from Cléopâtre also has its roots in the heart of the nineteenth century, but it is a later work than most of Massenet's more familiar operas, and it didn't receive its first performance until 1914. It has a concentrated sexuality that flirts with sorrow and seduction at the same time.
The three Italian selections on the album are exponentially more familiar than their non-Italian compatriots: "Poveri fiori" from Cilea's Adrianna Lecouvreur, "Vissi d'arte" from Tosca, and "Di tale amor" from Verdi's Il Trovatore. The first is an excellent introductory track: short, and possessed of dramatic opening vocal gesture that captures the tone of the album perfectly. "Di tale amor" is similarly satisfying, showing off the sense of Verdi style that made Fleming's Metropolitan Opera broadcast debut as Desdemona in Otello so memorable a dozen years ago. Oddly enough, "Vissi d'arte," the one aria on this collection that tends to be in nearly every diva's wheelhouse, and one of two arias on the album sung by characters who are themselves divas (in this case, Tosca), is the one performance that doesn't seem settled and altogether convincing. It is an aria that calls for impassioned simplicity, and sincerity above all, and its real impact is only felt in the context of the second act of the opera, when it can stand in contrast to the tense standoff between Tosca and the villain Scarpia; here, Fleming seems compelled to pack the entire opera's drama into every phrase, stretching each rhythm, and adding half-again too many vocal nuances. The result is an aria that feels less spontaneous, and less steadfast, than it otherwise might.
But that's somewhat of a stretch to find criticism. Taken as a whole, Homage is one of Renée Fleming's most successful operatic compilations and a rare opportunity to enjoy obscure repertoire that is exciting and musically compelling.