Renee Fleming (blog copy)
Decca/Andrew Eccles photo

Opera singer Renee Fleming charmed a full Waco Hall with more than her voice at Tuesday's Waco Symphony Orchestra concert, complementing lovely singing with an engaging onstage manner that had audience members singing, even whistling along.

Fleming, one of the world's leading sopranos, showed her skills as an entertainer, providing background and explanation for the selections in her program and, at times, encouraging listeners to join in.

As engaging as her numbers were, Fleming also displayed a sensitivity to music's ability to comfort, changing her selection for a third and final encore to Schubert's "Ave Maria" in acknowledgement of Sunday's deadly church shooting in Sutherland Springs.

The soprano sang in both halves of the WSO concert with selections in three groupings that revealed different aspects of her talent. In Richard Strauss' "Four Last Songs," a work with more emotional nuance than vocal pyrotechnics, Fleming showed a tonal shading and sustained breath control in her lower register that flavored the songs' sometimes bittersweet sense of time's, and life's, passing. An English translation of the verses by Hermann Hesse and Joseph von Eichendorff, projected on side screens above the Waco Hall stage, accompanied her singing;  English lyrics, in fact, were projected for all the evening's songs.

The orchestra's dense instrumentation, and not its volume, challenged the balance between soloist and orchestra early in the Strauss songs, but Music Director Stephen Heyde and his players adjusted, letting Fleming's voice lead for the rest of the concert.

A grouping of Italian serenades and arias by Boito, Leoncavallo, Tosti and Refice followed and proved the vocal highpoint of the night, their melodic lines and brightness allowing Fleming to show her vocal suppleness, sparkling high range and emotional interpretation. A lovely cello solo by principal Rylie Harrod matched the nearly sensual calm and peace of her "Ombra di Nube" by Refice while the Boito aria from his opera "Mefistofele" allowed her to plumb the despair of its character Margaruite, imprisoned and accused of killing both her child and mother.

Fleming paid tribute to the late New York stage and cabaret singer Barbara Cook, a neighbor and friend, with numbers from the Broadway musicals "The Music Man" and "The King And I," getting audience members to whistle along on "I Whistle A Happy Tune."

Contemporary songs closed her program, Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah" and Bjork's "Virus," the latter with a distinctive orchestral arrangement accented by chimelike xylophones and bass drum.

After concert's end and an enthusiastic standing ovation from the Waco Hall audience, Fleming returned to the stage for encores of "O mio babbino caro" from Puccini's "Gianni Schicci," "I Could Have Danced All Night" from the Broadway musical "My Fair Lady" - with which she asked the audience to sing along, which they did, lustily - and, finally, "Ave Maria."

The WSO ably backed the opera singer throughout the concert and showed its stand-alone talent in the vigorous, colorful Dvorak "Carnival Overture" that opened the concert and  sterling ensemble play in Glinka's Overture to "Russlan and Ludmilla," a rousing piece that featured nimble work from the upper strings, solid woodwinds, trumpet and trombone accents and booming tympani.

Tribune-Herald entertainment editor