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Friday, December 28, 2018

Diva Farewell

From the Classical Vault Dept.: Eleven years ago, soprano Kiri Te Kanawa bid farewell to the performing stage with a tour that stopped in Schenectady, and which I was pleased to report on in the piece below.


FIRST SHE COMPLETELY DISARMED US. Regally striding onto the stage, looking gorgeous in a full-length black sequined dress, soprano Kiri Te Kanawa spoke to the Proctor’s audience before her first number. In a friendly, intimate voice that nevertheless filled the hall, she spoke briefly about this stop on her farewell tour—“My first and last visit to Schenectady”—and her desire to make this concert the best of them all.

Kiri Te Kanawa
And then, just as serenely, she blew us away with a recital of well-chosen songs, a repertory of lesser-heard numbers that suited her voice magnificently.

A curiosity by Mozart opened the program. One of his final works, it’s a brief cantata written for the Masons, which he had recently joined. And it was a pleasant enough trifle, an ecumenical celebration of life, giving the singer and pianist Warren Jones plenty to do in seven or so minutes.

But it really served as a gateway to the masterworks that followed: five songs by Richard Strauss, showing a more introspective side of the composer best known for his orchestral bombast. From the first one, “Ständchen,” which gave the vocal line pleasant melodic leaps over a rippling piano arpeggio, Te Kanawa showed her intense dynamic control, which was even more effective in the next song, “Nacht,” a lullaby-like number.

She had a completely sympathetic pianist in Jones, whose presence, although a bit muted for my taste, was supportive and transparent. He’s a masterful player who knew exactly what each song required.

Not much survived the creative purges of madman Henri Duparc, but his surviving songs are gems, and three of them closed the first half. The sense of yearning informing his “La vie antérieure” was matched by Te Kanawa’s sotto voce delivery of the song’s climactic moment, an expressive richness

The transition to the second half of the program had consistency—more French songs—and contrast: The songs were by Poulenc, who was in a kind of Cole Porter mode when setting Apollinaire’s tribute to Paris. By the time we got the three-quarter-time “Les chemins de l’amour,” we had Poulenc in full cabaret mode.

It was an abrupt turn from there into diva mode, but Jake Heggie’s “Monologue” celebrates that most extraordinary of divas, Maria Callas, as portrayed in Terrence McNally’s “Master Class.” Heggie, who wrote an opera based on Dead Man Walking, among other projects, gives the text a beautiful, spare setting, lyrical and rhythmically free.

“If I have seemed harsh,” the piece opens, “it is because I have been harsh with myself.” Te Kanawa’s next career phase will focus more on her foundation to support young singers, so I wonder if we’re getting an autobiographical glimpse. “The only thanks I ask,” Callas sums up, “is that you sing properly and honestly.”

Britten’s “Evening” paints a nocturne with vivid colors, the melody skillfully climbing as it moves through the song. It’s an uneasy triumph that led to Copland’s setting of Emily Dickinson’s “Why Do They Shut Me Out of Heaven?,” a lively, lighthearted number, but with a sardonic point of view that probably sits quite deeply with Te Kanawa.

She skipped the next two numbers on the printed program to go straight to Puccini. These Puccini songs are every bit as melodic as the arias, but less familiar. “Sole e amore” and “Morire?” are emotionally fraught miniatures, home territory for the singer and pianist, and they capped the program with an unannounced aria from Adriana Lecouvreur, bringing the crowd to its feet.

This earned us a pair of encores. Ginastera’s “Canción al arbol del olvido” got an amusingly seductive performance, letting the up-till-now reserved Dame Kiri vamp a bit; then she wrapped it all up with the kind of number everyone had hoped to hear: Puccini’s “O mio babbino caro,” which was as gorgeously rendered as you ever could hope to hear.

The whole evening offered the kind of magical performance in which, although you’re sharing a hall with a thousand others, you feel as if you and you alone were the beneficiary.

Kiri Te Kanawa, soprano
Warren Jones, pianist
Proctor’s Theatre, Schenectady, NY
Oct. 27, 2007

Metroland Magazine, 1 November 2007

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