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Renée Fleming: Broadway 

CD Button BBC Concert Orchestra, R. Fisher. Decca 4834215

Recordings Fleming Cover 119
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THE ROAD TO HELL is paved with albums by opera singers singing showtunes. Take Kiri Te Kanawa and José Carreras in Leonard Bernstein’s willfully miscast West Side Story or, worse, Joan Sutherland’s swoopy, semi-intelligible Talking Pictures disc. George London’s On Broadway was one of only a few that deserved a listen—until now.

Renée Fleming is a vocal chameleon. Back in 2010, she covered songs by Muse, Arcade Fire and Peter Gabriel on Dark Hope, and though it had its detractors, you couldn’t accuse her of over-egging the operatic pudding. Put it on, and you’d be hard pressed to identify the singer as the leading Marschallin of her generation. So too with her latest recording. The voice (or voices, but more of that later) is more recognizably Fleming’s—the trademark creaminess, the scrupulous attention to text—but her innate intelligence, plus the affectionate experience of a singer who played Eliza Doolittle in eighth grade and the Mother Abbess at age eleven, has led her to think very carefully about what she’ll tackle and how she wants it to sound.

Perhaps the most refreshing aspect of this recital is the program. It begins with an immaculately finessed “Fable,” from Adam Guettel’s überromantic Light in the Piazza. The role of Margaret, the emotionally scarred and overwary mother of a child who has just fallen in love, fits her vocally and dramatically. Just listen to the way she works the lyric. She proceeds with gems from Jeanine Tesori’s Violet and Benj Pasek and Justin Paul’s Dear Evan Hansen to give us the very model of a modern musical-theater program. She even throws in a number from Sting’s Last Ship

There are enough golden oldies to keep the traditionalists happy, too. Rodgers and Hammerstein appear throughout, not unexpectedly: Fleming earned a Tony nomination for her recent turn in Carousel. Works by Kern, Sondheim, Bock and Harnick, and Kander and Ebb also appear, and the disc is well-crafted to explore the influence of the old on the new, and to demonstrate the fascinating range of strong female characters musical theater has to offer women of a certain age (unlike opera, ahem).

Fleming has an opera voice but also a musical-theater voice and a jazz voice, all of which can be mixed and matched. The opera voice helps her soar ecstatically through “The Sound of Music” and deliver a fine take on “Something Wonderful,” from The King and I, albeit overthought for such a simple and direct song. Singing A Little Night Music’s “The Glamorous Life” (mother, daughter, chorus and all) as an up-and-down-the-octave solo doesn’t really work—Sondheim probably never expected to hear Desirée’s notes anyway—but it finishes with a cheeky top note. The jazz voice, rich and chocolaty with a winning ache, comes into its own in numbers such as Cole Porter’s “Down in the Depths (On the 90th Floor),” Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Loneliness of Evening” (a pearl cut from South Pacific) and Kern’s “All the Things You Are.”

Best of all are the middle-of-the-range numbers. There’s a joyous “I’m in Love with a Wonderful Guy,” from South Pacific, and an upbeat “Dear Friend,” from She Loves Me, plus a couple of heartfelt soul-searchers. I can’t think of a more affecting version of the title song from Lloyd Webber’s Tell Me on a Sunday, and her interpretation of “So big/So small,” from Dear Evan Hansen, is a tearjerker. —Clive Paget



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