- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 1, 2004

The Kennedy Center’s vast “Festival of France” kicked into high gear on Friday with the arrival of superstar soprano Renee Fleming, who is performing through tomorrow in a series of concerts, master classes and recitals.

Her standing-room-only appearance with the National Symphony Orchestra, under the baton of Leonard Slatkin, was a showy affair highlighting popular French orchestral numbers, lovely art songs and two arresting arias from Massenet’s popular opera, “Manon.” Pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet accompanied Miss Fleming in the songs and also was the featured soloist in Ravel’s Concerto for the Left Hand in D major.

Overall, the concert was first-rate, but the ambience was something else. A significant minority of the audience proved to be strictly bush-league, exhibiting the kind of behavior better suited to a leisurely Orioles game in Camden Yards. Many streamed in atrociously late, annoying on-time patrons. A battalion of lusty cough machines heedlessly hurled fusillades at every flute solo. And hearty applause erupted time and again before pieces were concluded, visibly exasperating Maestro Slatkin, who was trying to keep the late-starting evening on track.

The concert program was characteristic festival fare, a little long on running time but filled with popular works and lovely, forgotten miniatures that should be heard more often. Typical of these was the Overture to Edouard Lalo’s long-buried opera, “Le Roi d’Ys,” which opened the program. Moments of great tenderness, including a lovely cello solo, alternate here with stirring martial music. The work is really symphonic in concept, and Maestro Slatkin’s forces gave it a crisply rousing interpretation.

The Overture was followed by a lovely, understated performance of Debussy’s “Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun.” The “Prelude” is something all orchestras know and frequently play prosaically. The NSO, however, made it new, weaving a magical sonic tapestry around the work’s sinuous signature melody. The orchestra also offered a workmanlike interpretation of excerpts from Berlioz’s “Damnation of Faust,” Op. 24, which concluded with the famous “Hungarian (Rakoczy) March.”

Miss Fleming’s performance of Ravel’s “Sheherazade” song cycle, accompanied by the NSO, painted an exquisite musical fresco — the composer’s dreamy interpretation of Oriental mythology. However, Miss Fleming’s voice did not seem quite calibrated to the large, packed auditorium, and it was sometimes a challenge to hear her above the orchestra in the rear orchestra seating.

More successful were her finely etched, sensitive performances of two delicate nocturnes — Debussy’s “Beau Soir” and Faure’s “Clair de Lune” — in the program’s second half, which were accompanied by Mr. Thibaudet. The pair instantly transformed the Concert Hall into an intimate, turn-of-the-20th-century parlor with these melancholy musical portraits of bittersweet romance.

Miss Fleming, accompanied by the NSO, concluded the evening with two standout arias from Massenet’s “Manon,” “Adieu, Notre Petite Table” (“Goodbye, our little table”) and the “Scene and Gavotte.” The former is a pivotal, dramatic moment in the opera, while the latter is a party piece in a lighter vein, filled with vocal arabesques that were flawlessly executed by Miss Fleming, who also performed an encore, to the delight of her many fans.

But the dramatic high point of this concert was the electrifying performance of the Ravel Left Hand Concerto by Mr. Thibaudet, who played it with the passion of an artist and the discipline of an athlete. Crafted for a pianist who lost his right arm in World War I, the single-movement work requires steely-fingered discipline to create the illusion that both hands are actually playing. The NSO accompanied Mr. Thibaudet with deft deco touches here and slippery jazz riffs there. It was a mind-boggling showstopper, and the artists should seriously consider recording it.


WHAT: The Art of the French Song

WHO: Renee Fleming, soprano; Susan Graham, mezzo-soprano; and Steven Blier, piano.

WHEN: Tomorrow at 7 p.m.

WHERE: Kennedy Center Concert Hall

TICKETS: $30 to $75

INFORMATION:202/467-4600, and online at www.kennedy-center.org.

WHAT: Renee Fleming Master Classes, including the FrenchSong, Gender Onstage and French Role Preparation

WHEN: Today at 5:30 p.m.

WHERE: Terrace Theater, Kennedy Center

TICKETS: $15; $12 for students

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