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Criticising the critics 8: Going soft on Renee Fleming

I may have been a tad harsh on the new release by ‘America’s leading diva’ (this seems to be the correct mode of address), but I’d rather err on the side of asperity than drown in mush like some of the first print reviewers.

This is Andy Gill in the Independent:

Renée Fleming claims that singing in French suits her voice naturally, which is clear on this album of poetic settings by Ravel, Messiaen and Dutilleux.

So we take her at her own estimation – do we, Andy? He then affirms to readers that her involvement with the intoxications of Ravel’s Shéhérazade is obvious. Oh, give us a break.

Tim Ashley in the Guardian lavishes four stars on the record before informing us that the disc also has its share of problems … and you are conscious of differences in balance, acoustic and the quality of Fleming’s voice.

So which it it, Tim: highly recommendable, or so variable as to be the car-wreck of a record that I described?

In L’Express, Bernard Dermoncourt confirms my impression that Ms Fleming needs to work on her French and might project her words a bit better: la prononciation française de la soprano américaine est parfois perfectible: le mot est trop souvent caché par le son.

We await, with bated breath, the onslaught of American media praise.

Meantime, decide for yourselves.

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  1. I hate to point this out, but even the blogs and critics that normally eviscerate Fleming are praising this (the ones I have seen). Le Figaro adored it, too. As do I.

    L’Express review you quoted is positive overall, calling the pronunciation issue a “small reservation,” and adding “But what music!”

    The main issues discussed seem to have to do with engineering. I hear this, but it doesn’t cause any less enjoyment for me.

    I give Fleming enormous credit for recording pieces off-the-beaten-path for sopranos of her stature, and for putting a 2009 recording next to a 2011 recording at this point in her career. There are differences, but not enough to matter, to me anyway.

    On another note, I think if we’re going to be super-picky about perfect French pronunciation from Fleming, that undercuts the previous discussion on here about the same thing with another soprano.

  2. harold braun says:


  3. It is funny that a few months ago you found outrageous that a French critic judged a certain soprano’s French pronunciation poor, and now you approve of the same kind of (typically and exasperatingly French) remark about Fleming. Isn’t it a clear case of double standard ?

    • Not at all. In the first case, the criticism was vague and unfounded. Here is it precise and correct.

      • Really? “The word is hidden by the sound”? I am not a fan of Fleming’s but I think there should be other grounds of criticism than her pronunciation. This is why the case you put in the linked article seems to me much more convincing than Dermoncourrt’s.

  4. The Sunday Times described her French as “decipherable French” in the midst of a rave review. I tend to think this is a matter of taste on many counts, including whether she has the appropriate voice for Shéhérazade, which is an interesting question.

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