Epic: From Telemachus to Television, A Soprano’s Storytelling and Songs for the Ages

Photo credit: Andrew Eccles

Well, what a treat!
LA Opera closed its 2022/23 season on June 10 by presenting a one-night only performance by
one of America’s favorite songbirds in any style or medium. During An Evening with Renée
Fleming the much-honored, five-time Grammy Award winner was accompanied on the bare
stage of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion by pianist extraordinaire Simone Dinnerstein and the
Emerson String Quartet (and yes, for all you transcendentalists out there like Revered Art Scott,
they are named after Ralph Waldo Emerson). In addition to enjoying Ms. Fleming’s dulcet tones
backed by exquisite, expertly rendered music, the sold-out audience was also lucky enough to
hear the West Coast premiere of an adaptation of Homer’s Odyssey.
Created circa the 8 th century B.C., from Telemachus to television and beyond, Homer’s epic
poem about the Trojan War and far-flung voyages remains one of the greatest sagas ever told,
still arguably unsurpassed in the art of storytelling. As one can image, there have been many
iterations of Homer’s masterpiece over the centuries, from the Cream’s 1967 rock song Tales of
Brave Ulysses to the 1954 movie Ulysses starring Kirk Douglas, here.
 and an unforgettable 1997 mini-series, The Odyssey, starring Armand Assante as Odysseus (aka
Ulysses) and Greta Scacchi as Penelope here.
The version Ms. Fleming debuted for LA Opera is actually a monodrama told from the point of
view of Odysseus’s long-suffering wife and is named after her, Penelope. As such, it has a
somewhat feminist perspective on the Greek legend, although it is written by two men. The
music is composed by André Previn, the renowned conductor, and the libretto is by famed
playwright and Oscar-winning screenwriter Tom Stoppard. (Rather serendipitously, the night
after Penelope’s Left Coast premiere, Stoppard appeared live on the Tony Awards telecast, as his
drama Leopoldstadt won the Tony for Best Play, plus other accolades.)
I did a deep dive to research (translation: I googled it and went to Wikipedia) what the definition
of a “monodrama” is: “a theatrical or operatic piece played by a single actor or singer, usually
portraying one character.” Although Ms. Fleming did indeed depict Penelope, the piece is not
actually a one woman show per se, as she was joined onstage by stage and screen veteran Merle
Dandridge who read text and sang portions of the narrative as Penelope’s Narrator. Both women
looked and sounded sensational, with Ms. Fleming adorned in a shimmering violet and black
sequined sleeveless gown.
Although they were the only vocalists, there are other characters brought to life in this
monodrama, including Telemachus, the son of Penelope and Odysseus, who she bore shortly
before her husband’s departure to Troy to fight the Trojan War for 10 years, and then the
additional decade it took him to return to his wife and home at the Greek Isle of Ithaca. (For the

first time ever, your dense reviewer realized why the hometown of HOMER Macauley in
William Saroyan’s 1943 classic novel The Human Comedy was named “Ithaca,” as a light bulb
went off above my addled noggin.)
I relished Previn and Stoppard’s interpretation of the Homeric myth retold from the woman’s
POV. What came across, when all was said and done and after all the Sturm und Drang, was
above all else the constancy of the unbroken bond between Penelope and Ulysses, who retained
their true love over the course of a death defying two-decade separation. Bravo!
After a brief intermission Ms. Fleming returned to the stage in a lime green sleeveless gown with
pianist Dinnerstein to sing pieces composed by Norwegian Edvard Grieg, Frenchman Gabriel
Fauré, New York’s Bernard Herrmann and others. Hermann, but of course, is revered as a
composer of movie music such as in Hitchcock’s 1960 Psycho; one can only imagine the type of
screeching that would vocalize Herrmann’s terrifying violins in Janet Leigh’s shower sequence.
Happily, instead Ms. Fleming sang “I have dreamt,” which Herrmann wrote for Wuthering
Heights, the sole opera Herrmann composed the music for.
A glowing highlight of the night was Dinnerstein’s virtuoso solo performance of composer
Philip Glass’s superb “Mad Rush.” Dinnerstein flawlessly played the 1979 composition, tickling
the ivories with many hand flourishes, which I was fortunately close and center enough to clearly
see. What captivating showmanship (“sho-womanship”?) Dinnerstein displayed along with her
sonic splendor.
After the pianist’s showstopper, Ms. Fleming returned onstage to croon Jerome Kern and Oscar
Hammerstein II’s 1939 “All the Things You Are.” She went on to sing “I want magic” from
Previn’s adaptation of Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire, which I had the great
luck to see/hear in 2014 at LA Opera, with Ms. Fleming as, but of course, Blanche DuBois. As
with Penelope, Previn’s version centered Blanche as Streetcar’s protagonist, telling the story
from a woman’s POV, instead of from the perspective of Stanley Kowalski. Because Brando has
so dominated Streetcar with his epochal tour de force incarnation of Stanley on stage and screen,
this retelling of Williams’ tragedy from Blanche’s angle shed new light on the drama, just as
reframing The Odyssey from Penelope’s viewpoint does for Homer’s epic.
Ms. Fleming graciously performed two encores for the appreciative crowd, including a glowing
duet with Ms. Dandridge that brought the house down of Burt Bacharach’s 1965 “What the
World Needs Now is Love” – which, BTW, is the music plaintively played at the end of Paul
Mazursky’s 1969 movie about polyamory, Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice
It was a sensational grand finale to LA Opera’s stellar 2022/23 season. But for those of you who
are worried, like the Left Banke in their 1966 pop sing, that Ms. Fleming will “Walk Away
”, never fear. The world
famous soprano returns to LA Opera with Renée Fleming in Recital 7:30 p.m., Saturday, June
15, 2024 at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, 135 N Grand Avenue, Los Angeles CA, 90012. For
:; (213)972-8001.
LA Opera’s 2023/24 season opens September 23, 2023 with Mozart’s Don Giovanni, at the
Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, 135 N Grand Avenue, Los Angeles CA, 90012. For details:

Photo credit Andrew Eccles