Renée Fleming: The last diva

With her latest collection of rare arias, the flamboyant soprano Renée Fleming conjures up a golden era of magic, muses and operatic excess. Edward Seckerson salutes a woman for whom style is everything
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The Independent Culture

The photograph is by Snowdon, the pose statuesque, the image one that Gustav Klimt might have dreamt up. And even if the words "Homage - The Age of the Diva" were not emblazoned across the artwork we'd still know exactly where Renée Fleming's new album was coming from - namely the turn of the last century. Now there was a time when the goddesses of opera and song really ruled. They dictated fashion, they dictated style, but most importantly they dictated the repertoire. Roles were created with their personalities and temperaments in mind. And on- and offstage their image was contrived to reflect their status - imperious, untouchable. The soprano Emmy Destinn was once photographed with a lion draped over her Steinway Grand; Mary Garden opted for a tiger when promoting her perfume. Product endorsement is nothing new.

Fleming has, of course, done her fair share of that, selling Rolex watches, perfumes and no end of haute couture. Fashion designers like Vivienne Westwood line up to dress her, exclusive jewellers shower her with exclusive products. Master chef Daniel Boulud even created a dessert in her name. It was, by all accounts, very rich. So you can see why Fleming might relate just a little to the golden age of divadom. "My heart belongs to the fin de siècle," she says, "and my imagination is fired by the great women who inhabited it." But glamour apart (and Fleming, more than any latter-day diva, has that in spades), there are deeper musical and psychological reasons for her feeling of kinship with these women and their repertoire.

First and foremost her own voice has settled into a place where its opulence and bloom and sheer seductiveness can thrive - namely in the hothouse of late romanticism. Richard Strauss and Jules Massenet wrote for voices and sensibilities just like hers; not just the sound, but the style. And Fleming is a stickler for style.

Her critics will tell you that she is mannered, that she indulges style at the expense of sense, and sound at the expense of words. There are elements of truth in all of this. But would such accusations of self-indulgence have been levelled at her "golden age" predecessors? Not on your life. They took the kind of risks and liberties that today's highly schooled practitioners rarely contemplate. Fleming puts it rather well when she says that "nowadays we can reproduce difficult music far more accurately than singers did then, but at the expense of a certain amount of personality and colour and flavour." Just so.

When I first heard Fleming - as Amelia in Verdi's Simon Boccanegra at Covent Garden - I was struck by what can only be described as her unashamedly archaic approach to style. Long-breathed phrases were carried to within a centimetre of what might be considered today as good taste; dynamics were refined in literally breathtaking ways; vibrato was used as an expressive veneer on the sound, the speed of it dictated by the intensity of feeling to be conveyed. The sheer relish of the singing was in itself an emotional experience.

Fleming is, and has always been, a most eloquent commentator on the craft, the technique, of singing. She'll talk quite frankly about her painful beginnings, the long and searching process of finding the voice that might best serve her; the all-important relationship between breath-control and support; the development of what in the singing trade is called "cover", whereby the bloom from the middle of the voice is carried into the very top. In the beginning she sang almost exclusively Mozart. It was, she says, a real baptism of fire since there is nothing so exposed, so revealing.

Switching between repertoires and styles is not something to be taken lightly. Fleming wishes there were some kind of vocal gear-shift that would instantly enable her to give more weight to the middle of the voice for Erich Korngold and Strauss (there are a couple of mouth-watering examples of both on the new album) while still preserving the brightness and mobility required for Massenet's "pink champagne" in roles like Manon (which she adores) and Thaïs, from La traviata (which she'll be singing in concert at the Royal Opera next June). It's all about adjustment, getting the voice in the right place at the right time.

Fleming subscribes to the "if-you've-got-it-flaunt-it" performance style. She was once famously brought to heel by the style police at Riccardo Muti's La Scala, Milan, when she sang Donizetti's Lucrezia Borgia there. She was unrepentant, but half the ornamentation she had brought with her stayed in the dressing room.

Which brings us back to the new album. The rarity of many of the arias featured reflects the fact that this repertoire died with many of the singers who created it. Korngold wrote Das Wünder der Heliane with the Czech soprano Maria Jeritza in mind, though in the end it was her great rival Lotte Lehmann who sang it. No one sings it now. But maybe the time is once again ripe for an opera about immorality rejoicing in almost indecent immodesty. Just listen to the way Fleming's voice wraps itself around Heliane's climactic aria. That's true also of Massenet's Cléopâtre, a spectacular role briefly taken up by Mary Garden. Or the super-rarity by Rimsky-Korsakov, Servilia. Even the musicians of the Mariinsky - whose orchestra under Valery Gergiev provide the backdrop to these arias - had never heard this forgotten opera. A dusty score was somehow recovered to reveal music of unashamedly Straussian reach with barely a phrase that is recognisably Russian.

So I suppose if the album is making a statement of sorts it is this: that compared to an era in which all the repertoire was new, mainstream opera has long since descended into something of a museum culture. Were it not for the rapidly shifting ground of musical theatre, the ever-diminishing divide between "opera" and "musical", there would be precious little that was new. So there is change in the air and Fleming is among those encouraging the speed of that change. She and others have started putting their weight behind new commissions from outside the "usual suspects" of contemporary opera. Broadway and off-Broadway are now more likely to be the breeding ground for burgeoning talent than the Met.

All of which lends a certain irony to one of only two established show-stoppers on the album - the diva's anthem, "Vissi d'arte" ("I have lived for Art") from Tosca. The difficulty is not the aria itself, says Fleming, but where it comes in the opera. Following the screaming top Cs of Act II's battle royal with Scarpia, it's a real challenge finding repose. Out of context, Fleming is able to take a longer line to its heart, and the descent from the climactic B-flat prolongs the heartache with every semi-tonal sigh. Again, there'll be those who'll cry "indulgent" and others more than happy to indulge. Either way, the spirit of an age is enshrined in those eternal phrase lengths.

So what has really changed for singers? Well, pitch has got higher, orchestras louder, and theatres and concert halls bigger. Longevity might soon be a thing of the past. But times change and styles change - and "style", as I say, is a big word for Fleming. It was ever thus. Her mother was a singing teacher (mother and father were both musicians), and as a toddler she would sit in on lessons soaking things up by a process of osmosis. I once asked her if she had ever contemplated what she might have done had she not been born into a musical family. She said that no one had ever asked her that question before. And she still hasn't answered it.

Renée Fleming is in concert at Barbican Hall, London EC2 (08401 207 500; on 2 December; 'Homage: The Age of the Diva' is out now on Decca