What I’m listening to this week (part 2): Renée Fleming’s “Haunted Heart”

Haunted Heart

I know that it’s hard to believe, since in my last post I talked about the fact that I don’t really like jazz, but the other new recording I have in heavy rotation around the house and on my iPod is Renée Fleming’s “Haunted Heart.” Renée Fleming is, of course, the current reigning diva of the Metropolitan Opera. She can pretty much write her own ticket for any opera house where she wants to appear. In the 2004/05 season at the Met she sang the title role in a new production of Handel’s Rodelinda to brilliant ovations.

What is less well-known about Ms. Fleming is that during her college years (at the SUNY College at Potsdam) she sang a lot of gigs as a jazz singer, and this disk shows that she still has the chops to do it. Usually crossover albums by opera singers are miserable and embarrassing flops for all concerned. Notable exceptions are the jazz recordings from the ’50s that the American dramatic soprano Eileen Farrell made, and the recordings of American popular songs by soprano Dawn Upshaw. But Renée Fleming is the real thing, and she has made her jazz album to suit her own artistic purposes. She sings in a sexy voice more than an octave below her usual soprano tessitura. She knows how to use a mic, and she has the right kind of musicianship to bend a note and phrase to the needs of jazz. In other words, she sounds like a jazz singer, not an opera singer slumming. This is not an album that you’re going to get from most opera singers.

Renée Fleming is accompanied by Fred Hersch, piano, and/or Bill Frisell, guitar, who both bring their own iconoclastic skills to the work. The songs are all over the map: from Joni Mitchell’s “River” to “My cherie amour.” One of the more bizarre arrangements is “The Midnight Sun” which begins with a brief excerpt in the accompaniment from the second scene of Alban Berg’s great atonal opera “Wozzeck”, continuing with a highly chromatic (almost atonal) improvised accompaniment to the strange vocal line. She also does a “straight” performance of Fauré’s song “Psyché.”

If you’re a fan of Renée Fleming, don’t hesitate to buy this album. If you like jazz singing, don’t hesitate to buy this album. It’s a little weird, but worth it.

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