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Renee Fleming, Rock Star

I won’t argue with Plato—where did quibbling get Adeimantus?—so I’ll go along with the proposition that imitation qualifies as art of a kind. On that principle, what Renee Fleming has done on her attention-grabbing new recording, Dark Hope—her first rock album—deserves nothing but the kind of praise that Fleming’s usual work as a lyric soprano is typically and justly accorded. She has earned her reputation in classical music, and, with Dark Hope she has earned lots of money. (The CD had the highest first-week sales of any record in Fleming’s two-and-a-half decade career.) Nor will I fault Fleming for having commercial motivations. She and the production team that persuaded her to do this album have talked about their driving intent to expand her reach, to introduce her to a new audience; that is to say, they saw the making of this record as a work of marketing. That fact in itself is not corruptive. Plenty of masterpieces were made to sell. The problem with Dark Hope is that it is superb imitation and nothing more. Fleming, a singer with masterful command of a rare instrument, places her voice in her throat and her head, in the rock style, and draws on the bottom of her range. Singing songs by alt-rock acts such as Arcade Fire, The Mars Volta, and Muse, Fleming succeeds at producing a legitimately non-legitimate sound, falling short technically only in the precision of her intonation. She is not sloppy enough for rock. More significantly, Fleming is so focused on manipulating her equipment to replicate a sound that is foreign to her that she adds nothing of her own to the music. To do so would have been to risk the accuracy of the simulation. One of Plato’s problems with imitation is that it degrades the real thing. Renee Fleming, singing rock with icy rigor, offers no hope so dark.