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A new CD set captures the 'Greatest Moments' of opera star Renée Fleming

DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. For more than 30 years, soprano Renee Fleming has been a major star of the Metropolitan Opera. She's sung nearly 300 performances in six different languages. But while she's made many recordings, few of her live performances have ever been released. Now Decca has issued a double-CD set of Fleming singing live at the Met. Our classical music critic, Lloyd Schwartz, has a review.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MANON, ACT III: OBEISSONS QUAND LEUR VOIX APPELLE (LIVE)")

RENEE FLEMING: (Singing in French).

LLOYD SCHWARTZ, BYLINE: Along with Yo-Yo Ma, soprano Renee Fleming may be this country's most beloved classical musician. She's not just a glamorous opera star with one of the most beautiful voices ever recorded, she was the singer of choice for President Obama's first inaugural ceremony, for the ceremony at the World Trade Center's ground zero just after the 9/11 attack and even for the Super Bowl. She was awarded the National Medal of Honor and appeared as a guest on Wait Wait... Don't Tell Me. She's that kind of artist, a diva who is also down to earth.

She's also a Grammy-winning recording star. But few of her live performances, which often say more about a performer than manufactured studio recordings, have ever been released. Now, she has essentially retired from the opera stage. And in tribute to her long career, Decca Records has released a double disc set of excerpts from most of her 26 different roles at the Met. Dvorak's opera "Rusalka" in Czech must have been mounted especially to give Fleming a chance to sing its most famous aria. This opera is the story of a wood nymph, Rusalka, who falls tragically in love with a human being. Here she is singing to the moon.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "RUSALKA, OP 114, B 203, ACT I: MESICKU NA NEBI HLUBOKEM (LIVE)")

FLEMING: (Singing in Czech).

SCHWARTZ: You could describe Fleming's voice as a combination of gold and silk. She excels in the repertoire that lets her spin out endlessly long lines you wish would go on forever. But she's also terrific in the glittering roulades and trills of earlier composers like Handel and Bellini and the propulsive rhythms of Verdi. Fleming is also one of our most touching and witty Mozart singers. No surprise that she made her Met debut in Mozart's "Marriage Of Figaro," the most humane opera ever written. But maybe Fleming's most sublime performance on these new discs is an aria from an opera she never appeared in. She sang it at the gala celebrating the 125th anniversary of the Metropolitan Opera with the magnificent Met Orchestra conducted by James Levine. Here's Renee Fleming singing "Marietta's Song," an aria of lost love from the opera "Die Tote Stadt," "The Dead City" by Erich Wolfgang Korngold, a composer probably better known for his many film scores than for his grand operas.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MARIETTA'S SONG")

FLEMING: (Singing in German).

SCHWARTZ: Renee Fleming has some impressive co-stars on this album - Italian mezzo-soprano Cecilia Bartoli, American mezzo Susan Graham, the late Russian baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky and American baritones Samuel Ramey and Nathan Gunn. All the arias and scenes on this recording were performed between 1989 and 2010, and Fleming is in spectacular voice. My only complaint is that no texts or translations are provided. Fleming's studio recordings have always captured the loveliness of her singing. But these live recordings prove that out of the studio and on an actual stage, she could be just as magical or maybe even more.

DAVIES: Lloyd Schwartz is the poet laureate of Somerville, Mass. His latest book is "Who's On First?: New And Selected Poems." He reviewed Renee Fleming, "Her Greatest Moments At The MET," on the Decca label. On tomorrow's show, we'll discuss the Hollywood writers' strike, now in its third week. It's already shut down production for most daily shows, including "Jimmy Kimmel Live!" with impacts on cable and streaming shows looming ahead. We'll talk with New York Times media reporter John Koblin about the stakes and sticking points in the dispute. I hope you can join us.

By the way, to keep up with what's on the show and get highlights of our interviews, follow us on Instagram @nprfreshair. FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Ann Marie Baldonado, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley and Susan Nyakundi. Our digital media producer is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. For Terry Gross and FRESH AIR's co-host Tonya Mosley, I'm Dave Davies.

(SOUNDBITE OF DAVID NEWMAN AND RAY CHARLES' "TIN TIN DEO") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Lloyd Schwartz is the classical music critic for NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross.
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