Renée Fleming, though she doesn’t appear to acknowledge it on her own website, is currently at the Williamstown Theater Festival; making her first appearance in a staged play rather than an opera. Not that this is too far a stretch for her to make, since she is playing a diva not totally unlike herself: someone who has been at the top of the opera world. Unlike Ms. Fleming herself, the character, Racquel de Angelis, is past her prime, as is her husband, a world famous, but now less in demand, conductor.
Regular listeners to New England Public Radio will be familiar with Ms. Fleming’s comic abilities with spoken dialogue from her frequent appearances on A Prairie Home Companion in the character of Renata Flambée, another over-the-top diva. On the radio she uses her voice to create the character, and she does the same onstage in Williamstown, giving us a woman who basks in praise and begs for more, whose performances in the past were legendary (and she has the recordings to prove it), who sings snippets of opera (and other tunes as appropriate) at the drop of the hat, and who sometimes drops all pretence and gives us a glimpse of the Racquel who is underneath it all.
Ms. Fleming has the stage presence to carry off the broad comedy of the farce Living on Love. Playwright Joe di Pietro adapted it from a play by Garson Kanin, making outstanding use of music to heighten the comedy, each little snippet sung by Ms. Fleming making its comments on the action. Also the recorded music which punctuates the action: when the diva and the conductor declare war on each other, we hear the Toreador Song from Carmen. When the two servants – who steal the scene every time they are onstage – enter to set up for one new scene, they do so to the tune of the Largo al factotum from The Barber of Seville (when was the last time you gave an enthusiastic round of applause to a scene change?). And when they sing the flower duet from Lakmé; it is the most poignant moment in the show, matched only by the one complete (nonoperatic) tune Ms Fleming sings.
There are performances of Living on Love through this Saturday, July 26. This is a play which could easily run for a long time on Broadway, though I fear Ms. Fleming has too many other commitments, including a run in the title role of The Merry Widow in December and January at the Metropolitan Opera.