By Lawrence Budmen

An unusually chilly South Florida night could not dim the festivities when Festival of the Arts Boca 2010 opened on March 6 2010 at Mizner Park's Count de Hoernle Amphitheater in Boca Raton, Florida, USA with operatic superstar Renee Fleming, backed by the stellar Russian National Orchestra, the festival's resident ensemble, under the baton of veteran opera conductor Patrick Summers.

Fleming brought her potent combination of glamour, engaging personality and, above all, vocal splendor to an unusually generous and musically ambitious program. After taking a little time to warm up with an aria from Rossini's Armida, a role she will undertake at New York's Metropolitan Opera this spring, Fleming launched into a velvety, luxuriant Casta Diva from Bellini's Norma, sung with plush, creamy tone, wonderfully cascading musical line and the most exquisite high notes.

Fleming's Letter Scene from Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin was deeply poignant, reflecting the heroine's conflicting emotions, the final lyrical strophes absolutely gorgeous. There is nothing like a good Russian orchestra playing Tchaikovsky and the Russian National players backed Fleming's fervent singing with playing of idiomatic grace and balletic intensity. An aria from Tchaikovsky's Oprichnik was a wonderful bonus - a long limbed rhapsodic outburst, sung with melting beauty.

Fleming is the quintessential Strauss singer and the four Richard Strauss songs (in orchestral versions) may have been the highlight of an evening filled with glowing performances. She captured the nervous aura of Standchen. Freundiche Vision was magical, delivered with remarkable intimacy in the large outdoor venue. Fleming's version of Zueignung was more lyrical, less heroic than the norm. Her phrasing was wonderfully noble and eloquent, the voice beaming in varied colors and a rich core of tonal radiance. Summers was the consummate accompanist, bringing Strauss' rich orchestration to vivid life.

The role of Mimi in La Boheme was an early Fleming calling card that she has long since retired. Her version of Mimi's farewell aria Donde lieta usci al tuo grido d'amore was bathed in glorious sound, all richness and exquisite subtlety. Two arias from Leoncavallo's version of La Boheme were delightful novelties - charming music spun with lightness and deft rhythmic underpinning. The final scene from Giordano's Fedora took the audience to verismo heaven, Fleming deeply emotive and passionate. Another tragic final scene from Mascagni's Iris was even more interesting, music of color and white hot intensity. Fleming began this aria softly, growing in sheer emotional velocity as the climax approached, the orchestra's rich string tone providing a plush backdrop.

An engaging crossover artist, Fleming sang a lovely rendition of Rodgers and Hammerstein's Hello Young Lovers from The King and I and a moving You'll Never Walk Alone from Carousel, so deftly underplayed and sung with such transcendent beauty that it emerged as an American art song.

For encores Fleming turned to West Side Story - a light, vivacious I Feel Pretty and vibrantly projected Somewhere. Indeed somewhere Leonard Bernstein must have been smiling at such magnificent singing of his classic songs.

In additions to his excellent orchestral support, Summers led the Moscow based ensemble in vigorous readings of the overtures to Bellini's Norma and Glinka's Ruslan and Lyudmila and a lush, impassioned performance of the Intermezzo from Puccini's Manon Lescaut (with a lustrous violin solo by Alexei Bruni) . A terrific opener for the weeklong Boca Raton extravaganza!

On March 10 the Russian National Orchestra under Constantine Kitsopoulos plays Prokofiev's score for Sergei Eisenstein's 1938 film Alexander Nevsky (with a showing of the movie) at Festival of the Arts Boca 2010 in Boca Raton, Florida, USA. The Miami chamber choir Seraphic Fire and mezzo-soprano Kelley O'Connor are featured.

Festival of the Arts Boca 2010 concludes on March 13 with the ballet stars Irina Dvorovenko and Maxim Beloserkovsky dancing to music by Tchaikovsky, Mahler and Bizet and the Russian National Orchestra playing the Mussorgsky-Ravel Pictures at an Exhibition, Borodin's Polovtsian dances and Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture. For information, see www.festivaloftheartsboca.org.


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