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Renee Fleming rules the room for BPO’s opening gala

When soprano Renee Fleming sings, it’s perfection.

When she speaks, it is with the easy charm of the gal next door. Which is after all what she is, in addition to being one of the world’s great divas. She hails from Rochester, just down the 90.

Because of her down-to-earth humor, there was a touch of sweet informality to Saturday’s Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra season-opening gala. Fleming suggested that the big crowd read the texts to the songs she was singing. She said she didn’t care if we rustled the programs. “I would hate you to miss this poetry,” she said. Her mother and husband were both in the audience. Upon the diva’s insistence, her mother stood up shyly and took a bow.

Fleming seemed to genuinely appreciate the orchestra. And the orchestra returned the favor, lovingly fine-tuning the accompaniments. In Puccini’s “O Mio Babbino Caro,” those pianissimos and pizzicatos were just so, fitting her as closely as her beautiful gowns.

That plural is no typo. For the first half of the concert, Fleming wore a golden gown with an ivory stole. Talk at intermission centered on whether the stole was fastened to her somehow, because she moved so naturally and easily and it never fell to the floor. She returned for the concert’s second half clad in a voluminous, shimmering gown of midnight blue.

“This is how devoted I am to Buffalo,” she told us in her down-home tones. “I almost had to get another plane seat for this dress.”

What fun! This is a gala we will remember. Kleinhans Music Hall was packed, and everyone, from babies to seasoned concertgoers, seemed to be loving it. Dan Hart, the BPO’s executive director, was cheered for marking 10 years with the orchestra.

The BPO set the stage with Berlioz’s “Roman Carnival Overture,” and then Fleming swept in, all smiles. She began with a real gem, Mozart’s “Nehmt meinen Dank,” a song of thanks from a performer to the audience. It was a wonderful choice. Mozart, for all his greatness, isn’t heard very often on the Kleinhans stage.

Wagner’s “Traume” (“Dreams”), from the “Wesendonck Lieder,” followed. As with the Mozart, you could follow along with the German words, but you really didn’t need to. Fleming, having commanded the stage of the Metropolitan Opera, communicates not only with her rich singing but with her gestures. You can sense her emotion. In the Mozart, it was a modest sincerity. The Wagner, in contrast, smoldered.

A Viennese waltz that Erich Wolfgang Korngold borrowed from Johann Strauss brought an impetuous Viennese grace to the evening. Fleming, having played the greatest Richard Strauss roles, knows her way around this music and gave it a beguiling lilt.

Two songs from Cantaloube’s “Songs of the Auvergne” were the highlight of the night. They were so beautiful and unhurried, and the orchestra shaped them so lovingly. We had a guest concertmaster, Lauren Roth. A graceful figure in a long black gown, she must have been a good fit, because in this transparent music, the violins sounded gorgeous. The whole orchestra rose to the occasion, playing all night with impeccable quality.

It’s probably hard not to, with Fleming in the house. Her heart is clearly in this music. The folksy first Auvergne song had an earthy humor, ending with a whoop that the crowd loved. In the second song, the famous and glorious “Bailero,” time seemed to stand still, just as it should. The long, languorous vocal lines had a wonderful polish and control, and on top of that, they sounded effortless.

She stopped several times throughout the evening to laugh and joke. Introducing an irresistible aria from Riccardo Zandonai’s “Conchita,” she described the opera as “ ‘Carmen’ on steroids” and “a tabloid ‘Carmen.’ ” “Read the text,” she said, “and you’ll see why this opera isn’t done very often.” Ha, ha! The BPO should do it.

Fleming sang most of the concert unamplified, but picked up a mic to sing Ennio Morricone’s theme from “Cinema Paradiso.” She handles a mic well – not an easy matter – and the crossover selection was charming, never cloying. She followed it up with a soulful rendition of Gershwin’s “Fascinatin’ Rhythm.”

The season is off to a high-spirited start.


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