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Sunday, August 30, 2009


Enchanted evening with American top soprano and the KZNPO in the first concert of their tour together. (Review by Michael Green)

The American soprano Renée Fleming provided an enchanted evening when she sang with the KZN Philharmonic Orchestra in the Durban City Hall in the first concert of her South African tour.

Renée Fleming is an international celebrity, and it is easy to see and hear why. She has a magnificent and superbly trained voice, she is beautiful, and she has a personality of exceptional warmth and charm. In a wide-ranging programme, she stirred her City Hall audience to remarkable heights of enthusiasm and she was admirably supported by the orchestra and the conductor, another visiting American, Bill Eddins.

She opened with three songs by Handel, the music as distinguished and dignified as the performer herself. Handel’s long melodic lines were delivered with absolute purity of tone and impeccable phrasing. Then came a long scene from Verdi’s Otello, an excerpt that illustrated Verdi’s great power as a dramatic composer. Not the least beguiling aspect of the evening was the intermittent commentary given by Renée Fleming in introducing her songs, and she commented that this opera is an outstanding combination of music and libretto – “You can’t do better than Shakespeare”.

After the meditative aria from Otello --- “a prayer for the oppressed, the weak and the poor” --- she sang a strongly contrasting item from Verdi’s Sicilian Vespers.

In this first half the orchestra gave a crisp, clear account of Barber’s Barber of Seville Overture and a 60-voice choir contributed a rousing chorus by Verdi. Bill Eddins is an impressive conductor, energetic and vigorous but not unduly flamboyant and he elicited consistently good playing from the orchestra.

Renée Fleming (who has an excellent figure to go with a beautiful face) wore an elegant cream and gold gown during all this. After the interval she appeared in a stunning deep pink dress and was greeted with whoops and whistles from a section of the audience. “I take applause any way I can get it”, she said disarmingly. The gowns were designed by top New York designer and former South African, Henry Schickerling.

The second half was more popular in content: the jewel song from Gounod’s Faust, two arias by Puccini and orchestral items by Bizet (the first Carmen suite), Massenet and Saint-Saens.

Introducing O mio babbino caro from Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi, the singer said: “This is the universal soprano aria. I’ve sung it all over the world”. She proceeded to deliver the aria with exquisite artistry and was rewarded with rapturous applause. For an encore, she sang Summertime from George Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess, and she seemed to alter slightly, with great subtlety, the timbre of her voice to suit this music.

She brought on to the stage two Durban opera singers – Lionel Mkhwanazi lecturer at the Opera School and Music Academy at KZN and his student Lukhanyo Moyake - not many celebrities would be prepared to share the limelight with students. Then she led the audience in a kind of singalong of I Could Have Danced all Night from My Fair Lady.

And she had nice things to say about the orchestra and about the audience. A great personality and a great singer.

Footnote: I paid for my tickets, as I always do and, with a few others, I donated money to buy tickets for needy students. It was therefore with grim amusement that I learned that the orchestra office were giving away dozens of complimentary tickets at the last minute, notwithstanding earlier Press statements that “a few seats are still available”. Ah well, it was better that the seats were occupied. --- Michael Green.

The KZNPO has responded to the above by indicating that, like many theatre or concert organisers, tickets are set aside for sponsors, potential sponsors, VIP’s and political or community leaders. Only when it comes to two or three days before the event, is it possible to do a final reconciliation as to who has/has not replied. It was felt that, in order not to have an empty seat (as Mr Green suggests), the request be taken up from the Opera School (OSCA) for extra tickets for their students.

Editor’s Note: The cost of the tickets, however, did not deter over 200 students from the Music Department of the University of Transkei who secured their seats as soon as the booking opened. The boarded a bus at 04h30 on the morning of the concert and travelled up to Durban. It was a considerable example of Miss Fleming’s passion to support the opera style and her generosity of spirit that she came back on stage after the rest of the audience had gone to address these students.

Without a microphone, it was a major challenge for her to talk to them without straining her voice after having used so much energy in performance but the students hung on her every word. A suggestion that they sing for her, brought forward a young man who sang a tenor aria (unaccompanied). He received much praise from the diva in which she particularly mentioned his good command of Italian. The students then sang a group piece in which their performance was notable for strong focus and good harmonies. Bongani Tembe, artistic director and CEO of the KZNPO, promised that he would bring the orchestra to Mthatha some time in the future. No doubt it was a very satisfied and contented group that boarded the bus to take them on the long journey home to the Transkei. – Caroline Smart