Review: Ravel a la mode

Having starred in recent days at opening galas for the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the National Symphony Orchestra, the Colorado Symphony and the Oklahoma City Philharmonic, soprano Renée Fleming arrived in Davies Hall Wednesday for a half an hour of stardom. Also ran: Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony.

There she stood, Fleming did — a vision of manicured loveliness — and she hit two connected high B-flats gloriously, voice of velvet and steel, producing a stunningly beautiful sound. This was the climax of “Asie,” from Ravel’s “Shéhérazade,” Tristan Klingsor’s macabre “Je voudrais voir mourir d’amour ou bien de haine,” about wanting to see “men dying of love or else of hate.”

There is a quiet conclusion to the song, about telling of one’s dreams, but “raising an old cup to my lips to interrupt the tale.” Then the complex, subtle, mesmerizing text and music ended, and there she stood, Fleming did, with a coy, broad, Sally Field-like smile, asking to be liked, really liked, never mind those Ravel and Klingsor fellows. Ick.

It was vintage Fleming, perfection in appearance and voice, and a disconnect with the music, a mechanical smile on display at all times.

“La Flute enchantée” (with Tim Day’s enchanting, straight-arrow flute) and “L’Indifférent” marched by, well-sung, and well-accompanied. Then a sort of interim encore, after the Ravel and before intermission, MTT whipping out a necklace from his pocket to give to Fleming, prompting her to launch into the “Jewel Song” from “Faust.” She rushed through it, as if still “L’Indifférent.”

Two “really big numbers” opened the second half, signaling the end of Fleming’s tenure after just five minutes (and a four-minute ovation) — big, glossy, impressive renditions of “Vissi d’arte” and “O mio babbino caro.” And that’s all she wrote. Should such a “blind soprano” routine fill the bill for an opening gala, especially in the city of St. Francis and her age-long love affair with opera?

MTT, who told the audience about the possibility of jet lag after an extensive European tour, conducted a kind of American suite (asking for no interruption between pieces), a super-noisy Copland “Fanfare for the Common Man,” Ruth Crawford Seeger’s quietly boring “Andante for Strings,” and John Adams’ “Short Ride in a Fast Machine.”

The evening closed with what must have been the 40th performance of the suite from Prokofiev’s “Romeo and Juliet” during MTT’s 12 years here.

The audience must be really getting the hang of it. Symphony galas, of course, are important, essential even, in raising funds. But wouldn’t it be great if they also provided gala music at a greater depth?

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