A little imperiousness? A lot of extravagance? A touch of the supernatural?
You could try to come up with the recipe for a diva, but you just know one when you see it. Or hear it: In an appraisal of André Leon Talley this weekend, the New York Times fashion critic Vanessa Friedman described his words as those “of a diva, uttered at a time when divas were going out of style.”
Out of style, perhaps, but not out of existence. In fact, I read that appraisal on Sunday as I was getting ready for a day of rare diva alignment, with two star sopranos holding court in two of New York’s grandest venues: Renée Fleming at Carnegie Hall in the afternoon, and Sonya Yoncheva at the Metropolitan Opera in the evening.
If you were looking for evidence of the demise of the diva — at least of the stereotypical variety — it’s true, neither of these seemingly genial, generous women came across as imperious. And clutch your pearls: Fleming didn’t even change gowns at intermission.
But divadom still shows signs of life. It’s in tiny things, like this sentence in the program at Carnegie: “Ms. Fleming’s jewelry is by Ann Ziff for Tamsen Z.” And at the Met, when Yoncheva sang the phrase “ta première larme” (“your first tear”) in a Chausson song, she slowly raised her hand to her face, as if she really believed she was wiping that larme away. Sometimes, even in opera, it’s the gesture that makes the diva.
In a gesture of becoming modesty, Fleming shared a reasonably crowded stage for the most prominent part of her concert: the New York premiere of “Penelope,” an account of the wife who waits very, very patiently for Homer’s Odysseus to return from the Trojan War.
Left unfinished at the death of its composer, André Previn, in 2019, the piece was stitched together from manuscript sketches and drafts of Tom Stoppard’s text. The 40-minute result is as talky as a Stoppard play but far less sparkling or affecting. Its tone mostly pseudo-archaic, this is pretty much just an “Odyssey” in extreme digest, lightly backed by the Emerson String Quartet and the pianist Simone Dinnerstein.
There are so many words that many of them were assigned to be spoken, to shorten the running time. Thus the title role was split between a singer and an actress (at the premiere three years ago and here, the movie star Uma Thurman).
Thurman is a natural at intoning amid the wispy thatches of underscoring, and she sometimes tries to inject some attitude into the dry libretto. But it’s never quite clear why the role has been divided. Couldn’t a single performer just shift between speaking and singing? The bifurcation works only to dilute interest in both parties.
Fleming is game, even if she doesn’t get to take lyrical flight: The soprano part is almost entirely recitative — sung narration — and never blossoms into aria or gives us any real sense of Penelope’s character or emotions. There are reminders of Previn’s stylish facility, as when a quietly swirling little quartet interlude slips into a minor-key whisper of “Here Comes the Bride” before modulating, almost quicker than you can hear it, into gentle satisfaction. But mostly the music seems scant and exhausted trying to keep up with Stoppard.
It followed intermission; earlier, the Emerson played Barber’s 1936 Quartet, dedicating it from the stage to Roger Tapping, the superb Juilliard Quartet violist, who died last week. Dinnerstein rolled out the deliberate arpeggios and rushing surges of Philip Glass’s “Mad Rush,” and accompanied Fleming in a set of five songs altogether more memorable than “Penelope.” The first, Grieg’s lively “Lauf der Welt,” didn’t play to this singer’s mellow strengths, but his “Zur Rosenzeit” very much did.
Fleming is 62, but there is still considerable richness in the middle of her voice, and her dips into low notes were done cleanly, without the syrupy scooping for which she was once often criticized. In the wistful quiet of “Zur Rosenzeit” she was moving, almost vaporizing the second syllable in “meinem Garten” (“my garden”) for the touching effect of the past vanishing as she remembered it. Fauré’s “Les Berceaux” had discreet, dusky power.
And she was earnestly impassioned in “Evening,” Kevin Puts’s new setting of a Dorianne Laux poem, most charming in a middle section with a Joni Mitchell vibe: a deliberate, repetitive piano riff anchoring a free and easy vocal line. (Fleming takes the Meryl Streep role in Puts’s coming operatic adaptation of “The Hours.”)
At the Met, Yoncheva was given one of the dearest gifts the company can bestow on a valued artist: a solo recital on its stage. And at 40, she has become valued with dizzying swiftness. Though she jumped into a few memorable revivals starting in 2013, it was only when she opened the 2015-16 season, in Verdi’s “Otello,” that she cemented her place in this house; at the end of February, she will star in a new production of “Don Carlos.”
On Sunday she displayed the ease with which she can fill even the vast Met with an encompassing mood: darkly nostalgic and death-haunted, as you’d expect from her melancholy repertory. Even her sensuality brooded, compellingly joyless; Malcolm Martineau’s relative effervescence at the piano placed her gifts in high relief.
Her voice is supple but lean. It feels like an instrument, in the most literal sense: a vehicle of expression rather than a remarkable sound in its own right. It has a low center of gravity and a quality of intimacy; Yoncheva gives the sense of singing to herself even when she’s not being soft.
As she began with a set of French songs by Duparc, Viardot, Chausson, Donizetti and Delibes, her high notes were thin and stiff. Indeed, throughout the evening those notes above the staff were a problem, mostly when she had to rise to them through a long musical line. Stabbed out of the air, loud ones had startling fullness and clarity.
But from the first number — Duparc’s “L’Invitation au voyage” — her interpretive intentions were intriguing, as she stretched the poem’s vision of “luxury, calm and delight” into a clear, forbidding premonition of the afterlife. With Yoncheva, details are everything: In Duparc’s “Au pays où se fait la guerre,” the repetitions of “son retour” (“his return”) at the end of each verse had a different gauzy texture, subtly increasing the complexity and tension of the illusion that a lover will come back.
A silvery sheen to “printemps” in Chausson’s “Le temps des lilas” gave a brief impression of dewy spring; there was grandeur in Donizetti’s “Depuis qu’une autre a su te plaire” without overkill. The Spanish-style ornaments in Delibes’s “Les filles de Cadix” weren’t dashed off for smiles, but were sung with intensity, turning what could be a throwaway number into an unlikely burning drama.
In a second half of Italian songs, Yoncheva was dreamy in Puccini, though her voice wanted greater size and juiciness to fill out her epic conception of “Canto d’anime.” In works by Martucci, Tosti and Verdi, her phrasing had confidence and style, a carefully constructed but persuasive evocation of naturalness; though she had a music stand in front of her throughout the evening, she sang with focus and commitment.
Tosti’s “Ideale” was particularly striking, its finale building from faintness to climax. Warmly received, she moved to classic arias for encores: a refreshingly unsappy “Donde lieta uscì” from “La Bohème”; a genuinely sexy, insinuating “Carmen” Habanera; and “Adieu, notre petite table” from “Manon,” tenderly mused.
Oh, and she spent the first half in a black gown, billowing above the bodice, and the second in white — shiny satin throughout, a dream of a diva.