Sunday, July 31, 2011

Renee Fleming and Joseph Calleja perform in Jerusalem with the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra under the baton of Zubin Mehta

On the evening of July 28th 2011, a festive concert featuring soprano Renée Fleming (USA) and tenor Joseph Calleja (Malta), together with the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra and Maestro Zubin Mehta, took place at the Jerusalem International Convention Center. The event was screened live in 480 movie theatres throughout the USA. The concert, a tribute to the renowned American tenor and cantor Richard Tucker, and supported by the Richard Tucker Music Foundation, was the closing event of the Jerusalem Season of Culture 2011, six weeks of cultural events and artistic experiences that included dance, music, poetry, philosophy, visual arts, new media, and more. Events took place in a variety of locations - from the Tower of David Museum, to the Israel Museum, the Goldman Promenade, to private homes and to Jerusalem’s colorful Mahane Yehuda open-air food market. This being its first year, the Jerusalem Season of Culture offered a summer festival of events created by Israeli- and other artists, “summoning the ancient muse” of 3000 years of the city’s history to entertain and inspire people of all ages and walks of life.

Lyric soprano Renée Fleming is one of today’s greatest singers, drawing audiences to opera houses and Lied recital halls and performing at momentous occasions such as the 2006 Nobel Prize ceremony, the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games and the Obama Inaugural Celebration. A three-time Grammy winner, Ms. Fleming has recorded widely, of late, releasing the CD “Dark Hope” focusing on songs by indie-rock and pop artists! Fleming is also involved in new music, performing works of contemporary composers. An advocate of literacy in the USA, her own book “The Inner Voice” was published by Viking Penguin in 2004.

Born in Malta in 1978, tenor Joseph Calleja began singing at 15, making his professional debut in his country in 1997, going on to win awards and becoming a prizewinner in Domingo’s Operalia (1999). Mr. Calleja has performed in opera houses throughout Europe and the United States and in solo recitals in France, Romania, Japan and his native Malta. With many acclaimed recordings, his festival appearances include Salzburg, Regensburg and the BBC Proms. Renée Fleming and Joseph Calleja collaborated in a DVD of Verdi’s “La Traviata” under the direction of Antonio Pappano.

Following the overture to Verdi’s “La forza del destino” (The Force of Destiny), the audience enjoyed hearing Joseph Calleja in a rousing performing of “La donna è mobile” (Woman is flighty) from Verdi’s “Rigoletto”. Enter Renée Fleming, dressed in a sumptuous gown of strong pinks. She began by performing the Jewel Song from Gounod’s Faust, her vocal lightness and agility posing the questions and expressing the amazement of the modest Marguerite at seeing herself in the mirror decked in jewels. Performing the aria “Vissi d’arte” (I have lived for my art), from Act II of Puccini’s “Tosca”, in which Tosca sings of the two driving forces of her life – love and music – Fleming is pensive, alternating asides with vehement passages in an eloquent, impassioned statement and outpouring of grief. Now dressed in a luxuriant, frothy black gown, Fleming’s singing of the lovely, haunting “J’ai versé le poison” (I have poured the poison) from “Cléopâtre” by Massenet unfolded in a hand-in-glove performance with the orchestra, her fragile, delicate and personal rendering boasting sensuousness, control and French transparency.

Opening with an ominous clarinet solo, we heard Joseph Calleja in “E lucevan le stelle” (How the stars used to shine there) from Act III of Tosca. An aria sung by Tosca’s lover, the painter Mario Cavaradossi, while waiting for his execution, Calleja’s beauty of tone, passion and sheer strength were a veritable tour-de-force. Calleja joined Renée Fleming in “Parigi, o cara” (Dearest, we will leave Paris) from Act III of Verdi’s “La Traviata” in a tender, communicative rendering, Fleming evoking Violetta’s selflessness and inner despair, her short detached phrases ( matched with those of the orchestra) characterized by tessitura leaps creating a sense of anxiety. The program ended with the duet from Act I of Puccini’s “Madama Butterfly” (Fleming’s first performance of it) in the scene where Pinkerton and Butterfly discuss their feelings towards each other and declare their love with an intertwining of vocal lines and gestures. Fleming is a feminine and vulnerable Butterfly, her upper register notes soaring in golden timbres, her characteristic lower register fruity, her facial expression reflecting the text’s every mood.

Most enjoyable was the selection of opera overtures and instrumental pieces performed with eloquence by Zubin Mehta and the fine IPO players – the Overture to Verdi’s “Forza del destino”, opening with its festive brass, was both lyrical and expressive of doom. Mehta’s treatment of the Prelude to Act One of Verdi’s “La Traviata” is both mysterious and delicate, a sense of expectation setting the scene for the ensuing social scandal. Originally composed for piano, Albeniz called his Iberia pieces “impressions” of Spain. “Triana” – inspired by the gypsy quarter of Seville - from this collection in its orchestrated form, was a fine vehicle for the IPO’s rich palette of colors, dynamics and timbres. Remaining in the Spanish temperament, what music could be more Spanish in flavor than Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Capriccio Espagnol”, of which we heard the 4th- and 5th movements. Bristling with solos, elegant percussion-playing and glittering harp passages, the work finally breaks into a dizzying, joyful fandango. One of the most magnificent instrumental movements in all of opera, the Intermezzo from Puccini’s “Manon Lescaut” describing Manon’s voyage from Paris to the prison at Le Havre, draws together the threads of the story so far, interpolating a reminder of the fragile “nell’occhio” (In your profound eyes) love theme with the underlying presence of fate lurking not far away, the latter heard in the crashing of timpani, to be followed by an almost optimistic conclusion reached as we arrive in Le Havre to find Manon in chains. Mehta paints in fine brush strokes, his orchestral language ever detailed and transparent, no matter how dramatic, as he invites his audience to discovere the information and messages these instrumental pieces have to reveal about the operas in which they appear.

Renée Fleming’s first encore was a poignant, gently flexed rendering of “O mio babbino caro” (O my dear father) from Puccini’s opera “Gianni Schicchi”. She then moved into a completely different genre, singing Canadian singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah”. Singing in her middle range and making use of a microphone, the quality of Fleming’s now smoky, relaxed vocal timbre was a far cry from her opera personality as she invited the audience to join her in singing the refrain.
Calleja then joined Fleming in an exuberant performance of the Wine Song from Verdi’s “La Traviata”:
‘Let us drink from the goblets of joy
Adorned with beauty,
And the fleeting hour shall be adorned
With pleasure.’

Lyric soprano Renée Fleming is one of today’s most exciting and charismatic artists. What a treat it was to hear her here in Jerusalem performing various operatic roles and to experience her magnetic stage presence and artistry. Joseph Calleja’s performance was dashing: he is, indeed, a natural, his glorious voice, spontaneity and joy of singing happily intermixing with his appealing personality and modesty.

The audience reacted with a standing ovation. It was an evening to remember!

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