Recording of June 2005: Haunted Heart

RENÉE FLEMING: Haunted Heart
Renée Fleming, vocals; Bill Frisell, guitar; Fred Hersch, piano, arrangements
Decca B00004406-02 (CD). 2005. Renée Fleming, prod.; Elliott Scheiner, prod., eng.; Peter Doris, Aya Takemura, Brian Montgomery, Anthony Ruotolo, asst. engs. DDD. TT: 63:58
Performance *****
Sonics ****

When opera singers start making noises about wanting to sing popular songs, it's best in most cases to plug your ears, shut your wallet, and run for the hills. The funny part is that pop records should be a slam-dunk for opera singers. Despite its many charms, pop music does not demand the vocal acrobatics that opera does. The problem is that many opera singers lack the feel or, to be more accurate, the kind of soul needed for George Gershwin, Kurt Weill, Stephen Foster, or any other of the handful of composers they seem routinely drawn to when the word crossover is mentioned. For lack of better terms, an approach more earthy and immediate is required. In addition, opera singers often look at crossover as slumming or easy money and so give scant attention to rehearsal or arrangements, content to toss off what, when done right, can be an illuminating milieu.

It's in this ghastly context that Renée Fleming, the pre-eminent bel canto soprano of her generation, has decided to make a pop record. Fleming has always been proud of her jazz roots. During her college years at the State University of New York at Potsdam, she had a regular gig singing with a big band and, to hear her tell it, for a minute considered taking her vocal gifts in that direction. A master class with saxophonist Illinois Jacquet in which she belted out "You've Changed" (which she reprises here) nearly convinced her to move to New York City to try to gut it out in jazz clubs. In the liner notes for Haunted Heart, a collection of popular and classical songs, she describes the experience:

"Every weekend for more than two years, I learned to sing in the most intimate way possible, trying to do what a gifted jazz musician does so memorably: to reach to the deepest place inside and sing with real feeling, from the heart. This was how I first experienced the power of connecting music and words."

Opera fans can be grateful that Fleming chose another path, but it's clear from interviews, as well as from her recent book, The Inner Voice, that the decision has, in weak moments, haunted her. It's appropriate, then, that this project—as she describes it, "a road not taken" that she's "long dreamed of realizing"—has the title it does.

From its first notes, Haunted Heart will be a shock to anyone who's admired Fleming's peerless work as a lyric soprano. Everything on the album is pitched an octave lower than Fleming's usual range. Even those who know her opera recordings or have seen her perform on stage or in recital wouldn't necessarily recognize her voice. Recorded warmly and with great transparency, the effect is astonishing.

A duo project, Haunted Heart on most tracks features jazz pianist Fred Hersch, who shows himself to be a sensitive accompanist—no mean feat, and a crucial link to any solo recital. Hersch is also the album's arranger, credited with having stretched Lennon-McCartney's "In My Life" into a slow rumination, and with effectively remaking Joni Mitchell's "River" into a power ballad. He's also melded an excerpt from Alban Berg's Wozzeck with Lionel Hampton's "The Midnight Sun," using a dab of his own improvisation as the glue. The result lasts only six minutes and, instead of the compositional Frankenstein it could easily have been, comes off beautifully; Fleming's voice negotiates the stylistic leaps with smooth ease.

Fleming's other partner in these sessions is guitarist Bill Frisell, who joins Hersch on several tracks and, on others, assumes the role of sole accompanist. A quietly talented musical chameleon capable of great inventiveness, Frisell seems able to contribute to any musical context. He's as adept at rock, country, and jazz as he is at the sort of minimalist accents and expressive textures he so beautifully adds here to Fleming's moody rendition of Jimmy Webb's "The Moon's a Harsh Mistress." He shines, too, in Stephen Foster's sad "Hard Times Come Again No More," where Fleming takes a more formal, almost gospel-like approach as Frisell's unadorned chords add flawless rhythms and a sublime soundscape.

The album's showstopper—not all that surprising when you consider the source—is Fleming's joyous dive, accompanied by Hersch and Frisell, into Henry Cosby, Sylvia Rose Moy, and Stevie Wonder's "My Cherie Amour." Singing a vocalise, to the opening instrumental part of Wonder's original hit recording, Fleming glides through the song, digs in like a champ in the final chorus, and sounds for all the world as if she nearly added a growl for emphasis.

This kind of commitment can be heard throughout this moody, sometimes pensive set. Possessed of one of the most impossibly beautiful instruments in recent opera history, Renée Fleming has been criticized for being all technique and no heart. Here she deftly crushes that notion, at least in terms of singing pop music. If paths forsaken have haunted her in the past, those ghosts should be forever exorcised by this sparkling, heartfelt prize.—Robert Baird