Movies often portray classical concert audiences as stuffily attired in black tie and formal gowns, an image that rarely reflects attendance at an actual performance. Yet for blocks of seats Saturday night at the Arsht Center, the glamorous image was reality.
The event was the Cleveland Orchestra's 10th Year Anniversary Gala, conducted by music director Franz Welser-Möst, to celebrate a decade of visits to Miami to give South Florida audiences the chance to hear one of the greatest orchestras in the world.
The star for the evening was the renowned soprano Renée Fleming, who sang a series of arias, with an interlude by the orchestra to let her rest her vocal chords and change her outfit, since it would be presumably unthinkable to perform five or six arias while wearing the same gown.
Critics have written that the 56-year-old soprano's voice has lost some of its luster. And it was apparent Saturday that high notes that might have floated in the past were thinner and took audible effort. Yet her voice remains a full, rounded and silvery instrument, and her expressive phrasing and emotional commitment showed that she remains a world-class soprano.
For a gala, a presumably happy occasion, it may have been odd to open with one of the saddest arias in all of opera, the Willow Song from Verdi's Otello, in which a despairing Desdemona anticipates being murdered. And unlike many show-stopper arias with unforgettable melodies and primary color emotions, the Willow Song doesn't make a great concert aria, wrenched from its complex dramatic context. Yet Fleming gave a highly affecting performance, oozing vulnerability as she audibly expelled breath to portray Desdemona's emotional turmoil.
After an interlude for the orchestra to play a Verdi overture, she reappeared on stage, having exchanged her silvery gown for an elaborate black one that appeared almost as wide as it was tall. She sang Mi chiamano Mimì from Puccini's La Bohème, giving a radiant performance with a soaring climax as she sang of the sun thawing the snowy roofs of Paris.
Francesco Cilea's Io son l'umile ancella, a lush, long-lined melody, was perfect for her voice, and she delivered a luxuriant and emotional performance. The only slight disappointment came in Tosti's Aprile, a work frequently performed by tenors, in which the orchestra played too loudly and covered up much of her singing.
The standing ovation inspired two encores. She sang La Morena de Mi Copla by the 20th century Spanish composer Carlos Castellano Gómez, an upbeat Spanish work, in which she added a touch of humor to complex ornamentations, with a smile for the audience to let them in on the joke. And she closed with that inevitable concert favorite, Puccini's O mio babbino caro, and if the high notes sounded thinner than they would have in the past, there are still few who would give as heartfelt a performance.
Aside from backing up Fleming, the orchestra played a few works on its own. The concert opened with Mozart's Symphony No. 35, known as the Haffner.
Although some orchestras reduce their numbers for Haydn and Mozart, in deference to the ensemble sizes typical of the 18th century, Cleveland didn't. But unlike less virtuosic ensembles, the orchestra could do this with little loss of clarity. If violins didn't have quite the pointed precision of the best chamber orchestras in this repertory, the playing was focused and accurate, with particularly rich textures in the doleful minor-key passages of the first movement.
The delicate figures of the Andante came off with ballet-like grace. The performance gave the work a symphonic grandeur, assisted by the tight rein Welser-Möst kept on the brass, allowing trumpets and horns to add texture without overwhelming the other instruments.
While Fleming rested her vocal chords, the orchestra gave a rousing performance of the Overture to Verdi's opera La Forza del Destino, putting maximum drama and urgency into this concert staple.
The concert ended with Ravel's La Valse, with the ensemble bestowing a ballroom-orchestra gloss to the waltz themes as well as a touch of brutality to the last minutes, as the waltzes break into fragments.