Soprano Renee Fleming is very much the diva, and from the moment she swept on stage Saturday to join the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra in Kleinhans Music Hall, she held the standing-room-only audience in the palm of her hand.
Fleming is a singer in the best operatic tradition -- regal, commanding. Her program, which began with Mozart's "Exultate, Jubilate," continued with a sampling of Italian opera and ended with a nod to Broadway. It showed off the fullness of her voice and her talents.
It was a unique program, but then, Fleming is a unique singer. Her somewhat formidable presence is offset by a sweetly natural quality. Her singing has an organic grace. Her admiration for jazz singers like Ella Fitzgerald and Mark Murphy should come as no surprise. Even from the way she sings Mozart, it's clear she loves improvisation.
Most of all, Fleming projects joy in her art. Resplendent in a billowing violet gown, she dove into "Exultate, Jubilate" with a perfect mixture of reverence and lightness. You could imagine her on the opera stage, playing the bittersweet Countess in "The Marriage of Figaro."
She was that expressive.
In the Andante, which Music Director JoAnn Falletta took at a good, flowing pace, we got to enjoy Fleming's long, rich legato lines and sure, horizontal sense of phrasing. The cadenza was breathtaking. Fleming gave the opening octave leap an effortless, delicate poetry. After a few adventurous melodic turns (that's the jazz singer in her), she wound it up with stunning ease.
Fleming loves bel canto singing, and the aria "Casta Diva che inargenti" from Bellini's "Norma" was exquisite. At the beginning, it was as if her voice appeared from out of the air. She was able to negotiate this notoriously difficult music not only with eloquence but with humor.
Introducing the folk songs "The River Is Wide" and "Shenandoah," Fleming explained why she was using a microphone (the orchestration was lush, and the hall huge). She feared she would be awkward with it, but really, she wasn't. She just shifted a bit into jazz mode.
All the same, she couldn't help adding operatic embellishments, and thrilling they were, especially in the mournful "Shenandoah."
Cole Porter's "So In Love" continued the musical derring-do. On record, Fleming's jazz sometimes sounds belabored in a way her classical singing does not. The live setting, though, was good for her style. She seemed relaxed and happy, and the music had an alluring, uninhibited feeling.
You have to love the Philharmonic Chorus for briefly stealing her thunder, in Verdi's "Anvil Chorus." What an over-the-top trip that was.
Elgar's "In the South," which opened the evening, brimmed with romance and orchestral color. Principal violist Valerie Heywood contributed an especially affecting solo.