Divas are supposed to be larger than life and do whatever they please, and perhaps once upon a time they actually did. Today, with opera-house budgets tight and bad behavior discouraged, offstage and on, divas can’t carry on the way they used to, and the world is a duller place. Renée Fleming is one of the few American singers who now aspire to the title, and even her considerable clout with opera impresarios and record-company executives has definite limits. Perhaps that explains why her latest recital on the Decca label, Homage: The Age of the Diva, has a certain wistful, wishful-thinking tone about it, beginning with the album cover photo: the soprano in a come-hither halter gown, a filmy wrap invitingly extended in outstretched hands, her bobbed hair held in place by one of those suggestive head straps that sex goddesses wore in the flapper era. The recital program, led by Valery Gergiev conducting the Mariinsky Theatre orchestra, is a collection of arias associated with divas who reigned in the potent years from about 1870 to 1920, with a nod to more recent prima donnas. The theme holds true in most cases—there are pieces here of Janácek’s Jenufa (identified with Maria Jeritza), Massenet’s Cléopâtre (Mary Garden), Korngold’s Das Wunder der Heliane (Lotte Lehmann), Smetana’s Dalibor (Emmy Destinn), Cilea’s Adriana Lecouvreur (Magda Olivero), Puccini’s Tosca (Geraldine Farrar and just about every other lyric-dramatic soprano who drew breath)—but I’ll give a gold star to anyone who can guess a famous soprano identified with such obscurities as Rimsky-Korsakov’s Servilia or Tchaikovsky’s Oprichnik. Still, a real diva should always be eager to stretch her repertory, and of the dozen heroines who appear here, Fleming has only performed Jenufa onstage. It’s an enterprising project, but the concept seems rather loosely applied, and all these offbeat arias, interesting as they may be in themselves, don’t really hang together or add up to a convincing musical entity.
Then too, all the divas mentioned above had something Fleming lacks: an original, defining vocal-dramatic presence that made the roles they sang, even the trashy ones, uniquely theirs. Fleming’s strongest suit is that lush, throbbing sound—as long as she is pouring her voice over Adriana’s lament it may be possible, just for a second, to forget about the heartbreaking specificity Olivero brought to her classic rendition. Sometimes Fleming does have a fresh idea, but too often it simply misfires—the almost comically extended climax of Tosca’s prayer, for instance, or her mannered dissection of Leonora’s first aria from Il Trovatore—though the voice is mostly gorgeous and the breath control astonishing, and that will be enough for the fans. The overall impression though is that of a diva wannabe who, for all her exceptional vocal endowment, doesn’t seem to know quite who she is or what place she occupies in the great pantheon.
A very different sort of diva, Audra McDonald knows precisely who she is and exactly what she wants to do. Of course, McDonald functions in an entirely different world from Fleming’s, as her new Nonesuch recital CD, Build a Bridge, eloquently demonstrates: songs by premium composers from today’s music-theater and pop world, including Elvis Costello, Randy Newman, Neil Young, Rufus Wainwright, and Adam Guettel, among others. Unlike Fleming, who must capture the past, McDonald lives very much in the present to create her own traditions, and her easy identification with the material vibrates in every note she sings. Like Fleming’s voice, McDonald’s is no less a thing of beauty with its silvery shine and precise tonal focus that plays so provocatively off the word. Despite the vocal sophistication, every expressive gesture has a wonderful immediacy, while the program itself is flawlessly organized, strung together like a rope of pearls without one jewel out of place. Brava diva.