My utter and lamentable ignorance of opera leaves me unable to fully grasp the esteem with which Renée Fleming is held. However, on Haunted Heart
, Fleming takes temporary leave of the opera world for pop pastures. Such crossover attempts constitute a mini-genre, albeit one with an almost unbroken string of ill-advised efforts (see the Placido Domingo/John Denver summit Perhaps Love
). Inevitably the marketing campaign will urge the undecided buyer to "experience love by plunking down a few bucks for a disc packaged with high-gloss glamour shots of the artist reclining on an artfully arranged swell of throw pillows.
Haunted Heart features the requisite photos, but more importantly the presence of two ringers in guitarist Bill Frisell and pianist Fred Hersch. Frisell in particular shines with his work on a perfectly realized, old-fashioned rendition of "When Did You Leave Heaven. Equally accomplished, but existing on an opposite emotional spectrum is his atmospheric, devastating work on "Answer Me.
Fleming's work on the album's pop-oriented material is unsurprisingly technically flawless, but also somehow off. She sings in a deep, husky voice far removed from her more familiar soprano and even she seems sometimes surprised by the novelty. Her performance is somehow both showy and stiff, straining to add some "authentic grit and managing to evoke exactly the opposite.
It is not surprising that her reading of Mahler's "Liebst du um Schonheit is the most comfortable performance on the album. She sounds at home, hitting every line with precision. Also stirring is her take on Stephen Foster's classic "Hard Times Come Again No More, which benefits from a less histrionic approachuntil nearly the end, when there is a more concerted effort to belt it out.
Haunted Heart is a fine document of identity crisis. The shift from classic pop standards to classical art songs, folk laments, and '60s/'70s singer-songwriter fare seems less evidence of eclecticism than uncertainty. The changes in Fleming's voice depending on the material further underscore her lack of comfort with most of what she is attempting. No doubt she is a great talent, but trying to be what she is not does her no favors.
Personnel: Renée Fleming: vocals; Fred Hersch: piano; Bill Frisell: guitar.