Rain can’t dampen diva’s performance at Santa Fe Opera

Diva Renée Fleming’s performance Saturday at the Santa Fe Opera included works drawn from the letters of Georgia O’Keeffe. Andrew Eccles/Decca

Santa Feans may be blasé over the sightings of a few measly movie stars, but they sure know how to respond when a genuine opera diva hits town. Renée Fleming’s appearance at the Santa Fe Opera on Saturday was both a musical event and a celebrity lovefest worthy of The Beatles and Elvis Presley but with considerably less screaming and crying.

Fleming has been doing a lot of everything other than opera lately, signing on to co-direct the opera program at the Aspen Music Festival, starring in a Broadway revival of Carousel, appearing soon in Adam Guettel’s musical The Light in the Piazza at the Los Angeles Opera and acting in a play, Norma Jeane Baker of Troy, at The Shed, New York’s newest cultural attraction. It’s all part of an astute, career-lengthening strategy of pulling away from singing complete operas while still near the top of her vocal form.

After a delay for torrential rain, the concert opened with Ralph Vaughan Williams’ “Serenade to Music” (1938) for 16 vocalists and orchestra. The text, adapted from Act 5 of The Merchant of Venice, is an exploration of the powers of music. The vocalists were members of the company’s prestigious apprentice program for singers. They provided a fuller and more dynamic sound than that usually heard in this piece and took full advantage of the work’s many short solos.

“Sweet harmony” is the inspiration for its musical palette, which is lush and romantic, and the concept of including the vocal apprentices in the concert was commendable, but the work is too low key to really grab attention as a program opener.

Fleming is tall and glamorous, with the magnetic presence of a film star at the Oscars, and her arrival onstage for Letters from Georgia was greeted with rapturous applause. She wore a full-length black gown, with peach accents, designed by Gianfranco Ferré, and in the second half, a sea-foam extravaganza by Rubin Singer.

The texts are drawn from five letters by Georgia O’Keeffe describing various times in her life. The appeal of programming this piece in Santa Fe is obvious, especially with references to an early visit to Taos Pueblo and, as composer Kevin Puts describes it, “The moment of O’Keeffe’s death, when she becomes one with her beloved desert.”

Fleming clearly adores Letters, which she performed with total commitment, inhabiting the O’Keeffe persona physically and with a clear progression of attitudes, as well as vocally. The soprano turned 60 earlier this year, and her voice retains almost all its renowned magic. Her upper register isn’t as creamy and sumptuous as it once was, but it’s still attractive and she renders it with ease. Earlier in her career she favored tonal splendor at the expense of textual clarity and meaning, but that’s no longer true, due perhaps to her recent work in theater and musical comedy.

There are some memorable moments in Letters from Georgia, starting with its arresting first line: “My first memory is of light — the brightness of light — light all around.” Alas, this was not New Mexico sunlight, but that of Sun Prairie, Wis., where she was born and grew up.

Puts has some musical fun in the second song, “Violin,” in which O’Keeffe describes her unsuccessful attempts to master the instrument, giving Eric Wyrick (one of two acting co-concertmasters this season) the opportunity to indulge in some intentionally awful playing.

Framed by orchestral climaxes that would do John Williams proud, “Ache” ably chronicles her love and passion for Alfred Stieglitz. Letters from Georgia has no specific narrative arc, however. Ultimately, it’s enjoyable in the moment but possesses little cumulative impact.

The greater musical reward came in the concert’s second half, with Richard Strauss’ Four Last Songs, which have long been a Fleming specialty. The songs, which were Strauss’ last works in any genre, were completed in September 1948, when the composer was 84. Strauss never heard them performed: He died in 1949, and they were first sung in 1950 by Kirsten Flagstad, at the composer’s request.

While the subject of the songs is death, Beethovenian rage or Schubertian despair were not for Strauss. (Of course, he lived a much longer and happier life than did either of them.) The texts emphasize the beauties of the natural world and its seasonal renewal, the powers of music, and the peaceful resignation of an elderly couple walking hand in hand toward death.

The first song, “Spring,” is an exultant celebration of the season’s “blissful presence,” with bursts of vocal coloratura on key words such as “trees,” “breezes,” “miracle” and, most of all, “birdsong.” It’s followed by “September,” which introduces themes of death more clearly — a garden in mourning, leaves dropping from trees, the sun yearning for rest — bathed in the glow of a radiant nostalgia. In “Falling Asleep” matters turn more melancholy, with a soul that longs to be released. “At Twilight” introduces the loving older couple at the end of their life journey. Their final line is a question: “How tired we are of traveling; is this perhaps death?” The composer answers it with an orchestral reference to the “transfiguration” theme from his tone poem “Death and Transfiguration.”

Strauss’ lush, late-Romantic vocal and orchestral style are in full display throughout, evoking memories of his early tone poems, especially “Der Rosenkavalier,” given Fleming’s presence. One of her signature roles was the Marschallin, who wants to stop the clocks to halt the passage of time, then eventually accepts what it means for her — letting go of the person she most loves.

Four Last Songs are demanding vocally, and Fleming met almost all the challenges, singing with superb style, excellent breath control and generous phrasing. Her interpretation involves a lot of detail, inflecting phrases and words with as much meaning as possible, which got fussy at times. Overall, though, it was a great pleasure to hear her in the repertory for which she’s most famous. The horn solos in the piece were an homage to Strauss’ father, a virtuoso player for more than four decades. They were well-executed here by principal horn Kelly Cornell, as was the extended violin solo in “Falling Asleep” by acting co-concertmaster Steven Moeckel.

The rain gods seem to be annoyed with the opera these days. The concert was bookended by heavy showers, with the first one delaying its start by 10 minutes and the second adding some Wagnerian thunder and lightning (and rain) to the two last songs. The previous night’s performance of The Thirteenth Child included a midperformance hiatus of more than 15 minutes, a first since the opening of the current theater in 1998.