When opera singers attempt to "cross over" by singing songs of the American musical theater, the results aren't always nifty, as anyone who has heard the Kiri Te Kanawa-Jose Carreras recording of West Side Story will attest. But such endeavors can be gratifying when (1) the repertoire is well chosen, and (2) the singers have a good grasp of the style required. This is the case with Under the Stars, a new Decca album of musical theater solos and duets by opera stars Renée Fleming (soprano) and Bryn Terfel (baritone).
I've had the pleasure of hearing both of these artists singing Mozart, etc. at the Met on several occasions, and I'm happy to report that they really take to the music of Richard Rodgers, Stephen Sondheim, Cole Porter, etc. -- perhaps not like ducks to water, but like enormously talented and sensitive opera singers who can perform this kind of material without condescending to it and/or sounding ridiculous. Throw in the Welsh National Opera Orchestra playing lush Jonathan Tunick arrangements under the direction of Paul Gemignani and you've got a disc that almost any musical theater maven will want to make part of his permanent collection.
The album opens with a duet version of "Not While I'm Around" from Sondheim's Sweeney Todd, and it's immediately apparent that both Fleming and Terfel are going to be just fine singing this stuff. The CD's other terrific duets are "All I Ask of You" from Andrew Lloyd Webber's The Phantom of the Opera (if they had to pick something from that score, at least they picked one its few decent songs), "All the Love I Have" from Lloyd Webber's The Beautiful Game, "So in Love" from Porter's Kiss Me, Kate, "Aimer" from the French musical Romeo and Juliette, and the two most spectacular cuts on the CD: "Wheels of a Dream" from Ragtime (Stephen Flaherty-Lynn Ahrens) and "How Could I Ever Know?" from The Secret Garden (Lucy Simon-Marsha Norman). Though these duets are definitively sung on their original cast albums by (1) Brian Stokes Mitchell and Audra McDonald, and (2) Mandy Patinkin and Rebecca Luker, it's still great to hear them done by Terfel and Fleming.
As for the solos, Fleming's shining moment is the haunting "Moonfall" from Rupert Holmes's The Mystery of Edwin Drood. She also does a bang-up job with "All the Wasted Time" from Parade, effectively deploying the honeyed Southern accent we heard when she played Blanche DuBois in the André Previn opera A Streetcar Named Desire. Terfel is irresistible in a mini-medley of Kander and Ebb's "I Don't Remember You" (from The Happy Time) and "Sometimes a Day Goes By" (from Woman of the Year), and he makes a good case for "Stars" from Les Misérables. Perhaps surprisingly, he's also very effective in "76 Trombones" from The Music Man: his slight Welsh accent is more charming than disconcerting, and he skillfully adapts his operatic sound to the material. Lord knows, the performance is far more convincing and enjoyable than Matthew Broderick's attempt at the same material. (More on that debacle next week.)
Terfel's "Pretty Women" from Sweeney Todd is a nice aural memento of a role he played in Chicago last year, and Fleming's "Hello, Young Lovers" gives us an idea of what she might be like as Mrs. Anna in The King and I -- though why she sings "I've had a love of my own, my friends" rather than "I've had a love of my own, like yours" is anyone's guess. The only reason not to rush out and buy this CD is that you might want to wait for the live concert DVD of the program that will be released this spring following a PBS telecast. Check your local listings!