Let critics carp over Renee Fleming’s mannered singing style, skewed interpretations and twisted vowel pronunciations: The Renee Fleming who made her Hollywood debut Tuesday provided a shining display of a vocal instrument at its untempered best. Backed by a smooth-sounding L.A. Philharmonic and a splendid sound mix that reflected well on the changes to the Hollywood Bowl and its system, she found a comfort zone in the works of Handel, Strauss and Massenet and delivered a perf that confirmed her star power, magnetism and stature as opera’s current leading lady.
To start, Fleming approached two numbers from Handel’s “Rodelinda” with a comforting airiness before employing Massenet’s “Obeissons quand leur voix appelle” to showcase the brute strength of her voice. A pair of Richard Strauss songs, “Morgen!” and “Zueignung,” provided a solemnity to the evening, her clear diction and role-playing creating the night’s most dramatic moments.
Fleming continues to breach the border between opera and the higher end of pop culture in appearances: Recently she sang “Your Song” with Elton John at Radio City Music Hall, and she has added Broadway numbers to her recorded oeuvre and continues to vow she’ll get to a long-delayed jazz album any day now.
The second half of her perf addressed those ambitions with careful and delicate readings of Cole Porter’s “So in Love” and Richard Rod-gers’ “You’ll Never Walk Alone.” Fleming gently de-emphasized the Porter rhyme scheme — a hint of her jazz inklings? — and in the encore gave Gershwin’s “Summertime” — the most overplayed tune at the Bowl? — the full operatic treatment.
At ease in front of the crowd of about 8,800, Fleming broke the prima donna mold by joking about an opera plot and even jutting her tongue out and gasping at the conclusion of a strenuous, high-pitched aria. She’s opera’s most human face, which may well lead to a call from Hollywood, a contingent from which was on hand as a potential welcoming committee.
One hopes, should she venture into crossover territory, that she’ll step carefully. Fleming has the ability to entertain as well as thrill; here’s hoping she’ll avoid the novelties tendered by her male counterparts — duets with country-folkies, movies with mice and schmaltzy pop records — and make serious, adult-oriented music for a long time to come.