What is charisma? So easy to look at, as Bob Dylan once put it. So hard to define. On Wednesday evening at the Ordway, the definition seemed easier. Renée Fleming, America’s most glamorous classical soprano, was on stage, working an adoring audience, the very embodiment of what it means to be charismatic.

Part of Fleming’s charm is that she is anything but a haughty, high-maintenance diva. Gripping a handheld microphone between numbers, she dropped in useful, light-touch information about the music she was singing, spicing it with plenty of homespun witticisms. Most recitalists simply stand and deliver. Not Ms. Fleming. She really is quite the quipster.

She is also an outstanding opera singer. And she drew upon those skills to illustrate the story of Schumann’s song cycle “Frauenliebe und -leben.” As Fleming herself commented, this can be a difficult cycle to stomach for all but the worst misogynists. It majors in images of sweet, feminine subservience to a husband along with an impossibly idealized vision of masculinity.

Fleming’s gifts as a vocal actor — a hand wrung here, a pained facial expression there — somehow melted through the stereotypes, and she piercingly realized Schumann’s tender exploration of the young wife’s emotions. In the final song, where the husband dies, Fleming froze time stunningly, fully capturing the numbness of sudden, unexpected loss. The bereft piano postlude was heart-achingly delivered by Hartmut Höll, the excellent accompanist.

Opera also was featured. Boito’s Mefistofele is staged infrequently nowadays, but Fleming made a compelling case for the aria “L’altra notte in fondo al mare.” At 57, she is wisely singing fewer full-length operatic productions nowadays, but the two silken trills she executed in the Boito showed that her technical chops remain.

Much of the recital’s second half was devoted to lighter pieces. Signaling the shift in tone, Fleming changed into a red sparkler. The new dress elicited cheers and whoops when Fleming emerged wearing it. It suited the set of three numbers that she sang from Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “The King and I,” where she had the audience whistling along cheerfully with “I Whistle a Happy Tune.”

Fleming loves the Broadway repertoire, and though she included more of it as encores — “I Could Have Danced All Night” turned into a singalong — it wasn’t the most convincing part of the evening vocally. Harold Arlen’s evergreen “Over the Rainbow,” for instance, was fussily phrased in places, and generally a little over-sophisticated in conception.

Elsewhere a slight nasality in the voice’s middle range, and a tendency for phrase endings to become tonally thinner, were occasional distractions. But Fleming’s ability to float creamy top notes was undiminished. It made the final encore, Puccini’s “O mio babbino caro,” a special experience, its deliciously hushed conclusion lingering longer in the memory than some of the more obviously show-stopping moments.


Terry Blain writes about classical music and theater.