The Minnesota Orchestra heralded the start of its first full season in three years with a gala concert Friday, “Starry, Starry Night,” with opera diva Renée Fleming as the brightest star. With Gov. Mark Dayton and the mayors of Minneapolis and St. Paul in attendance, along with a sellout crowd, it was quite an event at Orchestra Hall. 

Fleming, in an underwhelming beige gown, opened with “The Strand Settings,” by Swedish composer Anders Hillborg, a song cycle written with her in mind. It had its world premiere at Carnegie Hall in April 2013. This was only its second performance and the first time the orchestra has played Hillborg’s music.

The work perfectly fit Fleming’s creamy lyric soprano with its soaring top. The orchestration was understated, parts feeling almost a cappella, until the third song, which became more assertive, creating a captivating series of orchestral colors.

Fleming’s diction was a problem, however. For all her mellifluous sounds, it was hard to make out the text by former U.S. poet laureate Mark Strand. It was thus hard to judge the quality of the setting.

She returned later in a more theatrical royal blue satin gown to perform two Italian opera arias: “O mio babbino caro” from Puccini’s “Gianni Schicchi,” and “Ier della fabrica a Triana” from Riccardo Zandonai’s “Conchita.” In the former, she embodied the young girl’s innocent love. In the latter, she was less successful at conveying the sensuality of the Carmen-like title character.

For the selections from “West Side Story,” Fleming had trouble scaling back her large operatic voice to fit the simpler melodies. “Somewhere” was taken overly slowly to accommodate her. But she made “I Feel Pretty” her most theatrical performance of the evening.

Music Director Osmo Vänskä opened the concert with a sprightly performance of the Overture to “Maskarade” by Danish composer Carl Nielsen, true to the opera’s opéra bouffe roots. He also conducted the Intermezzo from Mascagni’s “Cavalleria rusticana,” capturing the peace of a quiet Easter morning, and the Overture to Verdi’s “La forza del destino,” fully realizing the music’s drama.

The evening ended with a festive reading of the familiar tone poem, “The Pines of Rome” by Ottorino Respighi. Vänskä exploited the dazzling orchestration and brought the evening to a celebratory conclusion.

 

William Randall Beard writes about music.