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Over the last 16 months, we’ve all fantasized about what it would be like to reemerge from our wrapped up, cooped up lives. For some, the ideal post-pandemic experience would be going to a concert and experiencing, happily and communally, a great artist gifting us with a memorable performance.

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True, the era of COVID-19 isn’t over yet. But on Thursday, those who saw soprano Renée Fleming sing at the Irvine Barclay Theatre could be excused for feeling that we’ve just turned a corner. The event, a presentation of the Philharmonic Society, was the first public concert at the venue since the pandemic began.

Fleming and her accompanist, Inon Barnatan, performed to an audience of about 450 in the 750-seat hall — ticket sales were restricted to maintain some semblance of social distancing. There were other precautions as well: wearing masks was mandatory until you took your seat, and the bar was selling packaged, pre-made cocktails.

But nothing could dampen the enthusiasm of this crowd. It was strangely heartwarming to see people in their 60s and 70s acting like school kids after the last day of classes. On a perfect summer evening, the plaza in front of the Barclay was filled with kisses, hugs and animated conversations. Even the rising full moon seemed prepped for the occasion: It was an extra-large Strawberry Moon, the last supermoon of the year.

Fleming, 62, long ago achieved the kind of status accorded to only a handful of classical music superstars. Back in 2001, the New Yorker claimed she had arrived at “that place beyond the opera hall where, every couple of decades or so, a classical singer is accorded something like the celebrity of a pop star.” She performed the national anthem at the 2014 Super Bowl, and she’s probably the only operatic star who can sing in elf language (a skill she learned for Peter Jackson’s “Lord of the Rings”).

Fleming’s program on Thursday ranged far and wide, from her expected favorites (Richard Strauss, Giuseppe Verdi, Franz Schubert) to modern masters from various musical worlds (Maria Schneider, Joni Mitchell, John Corigliano).

Fleming has always enjoyed an easy rapport with her fans, but on Thursday that bond felt electric. She seemed as happy as the audience about her return to the stage, telling a few stories about how she coped with the isolation (apparently she has turned into a terrific gardener).

Understandably, the evening was tinged with the complex knot of feelings that we’ve shared over the last year. 

Fleming started the concert a cappella with Corigliano’s setting of Kitty O’Meara’s iconic, viral poem about coping with the pandemic that was written at its beginning, in March 2020. In the program it was supposed to end the first half of the show, but Fleming chose to begin with it — a wise decision. It set the mood perfectly with its message of hope, loss and perseverance.

At an age when many singers retire (or should consider it), Fleming’s voice betrays few hints of weakness. She’s more careful now with her material, and her pliant, golden lyric soprano tone has gotten a shade darker. But overall, Fleming’s voice shows the care she has taken with her career over the last four decades. (Undoubtedly, genes have something to do with it, too.)

Among several highlights was “Salce, salce – Ave Maria” from Verdi’s “Otello.” Desdemona is one of Fleming’s most celebrated operatic roles. You didn’t need to understand Italian to feel Desdemona’s grim acceptance of her impending death.

Inon Barnatan, accompanist for Renée Fleming. Credit: Photo courtesy of the Philharmonic Society of Orange County/Marco Borggreve

The concert’s most surprising triumph was a song cycle by Schneider, a genre-crossing, Grammy-winning musician schooled in jazz as well as classical music whose compositions defy easy categorization.

“Winter Morning Walks,” written for soprano Dawn Upshaw, are the perfect works for an audience emerging from isolation: intimate, reflective, describing crystalline moments that capture the magic of everyday experience. Fleming gave the five excerpts the subtlety they require, combining sadness and joy in a celebration of quotidian pleasures. Barnatan was at his best here, effortlessly executing unusual piano techniques (damping and plucking the strings) and producing sounds that were as exotic as they were beautiful.

Fleming was just as strong with more familiar material, bringing creativity to overplayed standards such as Schubert’s “An Sylvia” and “Die Forelle.” One of her specialties is creating moments of insight by taking surprising departures from standard interpretation, and by using her superb acting skills to bring out character nuances in lyrics that we thought we’d known well. Barnatan, one of the world’s great accompanists, is an ultra-sensitive listener, although he seemed slightly less comfortable with Handel than Schubert and Strauss.

The evening’s only slight disappointment was Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now.” The arrangement Fleming chose was slow and a bit overwrought, and the accompaniment seemed a tad precious. But it’s still fun to hear her give a Fleming-esque spin to a pop classic.

Fleming gifted us with one encore: Puccini’s universally adored “O mio babbino caro” from “Gianni Schicchi.” It was the perfect valentine to the adoring crowd, who left dutifully masked but buoyed by a feeling that we’d almost forgotten: the thrill of sharing a great concert.

Renée Fleming sings “O mio babbino caro” from “Gianni Schicci” with the Berliner Philharmoniker.

Paul Hodgins is the founding editor of Arts & Culture at Voice of OC. He can be reached at phodgins@voiceofoc.org.

Classical music coverage at Voice of OC is supported in part by a grant from the Rubin Institute for Music Criticism. Voice of OC makes all editorial decisions.

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