Renée Fleming – Christmas in New York
with Wynton Marsalis, Gregory Porter, Kelli O’Hara, Chris Botti, Brad Mehldau, Kurt Elling, Rufus Wainwright
The first think that it must be pointed out to avoid misunderstandings and disappointment about Renée Fleming’s Christmas in New York is that this is absolutely not a classical music album, but it is a jazz-pop collection of fourteen famous songs, performed with a roster of guest stars of the calibre of Wynton Marsalis, Gregory Porter, Kelli O’Hara, Chris Botti, Brad Mehldau, Kurt Elling and Rufus Wainwright.
It is not the first time that Fleming leaves the operatic repertoire to which she usually belongs to explore different musical genres, as she already did in 2010 with her pop album Dark Hope, but this is her first holiday album and the double expectation created by the new sample of her versatility and by her tribute to Christmas makes this album eagerly awaited.
The main theme is different from that of other Christmas recordings and it is an intriguing one, because Fleming tries to capture the unique atmosphere of the American metropolis during this particular period and to diffuse it all over the world, reaching even to those who never visited the Big Apple.
This is what actually happens. The arrangement of the songs is good enough to immerse the listener into a glamorous and merry atmosphere with a cosmopolitan background, despite some flaws that are too manifest to be ignored.
The main – perhaps the only – problem is Renée Fleming herself. After you will accustom yourself to hear her in this unusual repertoire (something that it is not so difficult, to tell the truth), you will realize that her voice is as charming as when she sings an opera. Fleming’s warm velvet is enchanting and the verve she reveals in songs as Sleigh Ride and The Man with the Bag, the melancholy with which she characterizes In the Bleak Midwinter or the inspiring rendition of Love and Hard Times are absolutely remarkable and will not fail to please anyone who will listen to them. Moreover, the jazzy songs benefit of Fleming’s personality, of her constant need to give meaning to what she is singing and to express her feelings with abandonment and passion.
All good so far, then, but not all the songs of Christmas in New York are flawless and from time something artificial and forced appears in Fleming’s singing, perhaps in an attempt to imitate a jazz voice or to emphasize certain crucial passages, but with the result that she loses the most precious features of her voice, her natural charm. This is recurrent in almost every song, but it is more evident in Winter Wonderland, where it becomes even mawkish, and in Merry Christmas, where she seems completely out of place.
Anyway, as I wrote before, these flaws are not so tragic to compromise the outcome of Christmas in New York. Its purpose is to convey an idea of a Christmas metropolis is fulfilled. Fleming may not be perfect, but this does not prevent her to be really fine in her best moments. In addition to this, there are the great guest stars: Marsalis is spectacular in Winter Wonderland and Sleigh Ride, Kelli O’Hara is enthralling in Silver Bells and how not to remember the beautiful contrast between Fleming’s silvery voice and Kurt Elling’s dark one in Snowbound?
There are more reasons to love Christmas in New York than to dislike it, after all.