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November 16, 2009

In farewell (or not), Kiri Te Kanawa demonstrates her lasting vocal beauty

For quite a while now, there has been talk of Kiri Te Kanawa retiring, at least from the opera stage. But each time someone declares that she's heading for the exit door, she says (as she did to me in a phone interview the other day), "Hang on."

That happened again Saturday night when Te Kanawa (or Dame Kiri, as Her Majesty's subjects would say -- she was made a Dame Commander of the British Empire 27 years ago) gave what was billed as her "farewell" DC recital, presented by the Washington Performing Arts Society at the Kennedy Center. The glamorous, decidedly youthful-looking 65-year-old soprano took a moment during the concert to say, in essence, "Hang on." She suggested that, since she had performed in Washington "on average every five years" since 1982, she could well be back. If she sounds half as good in 2014 as she did Saturday, I say, bring her on.

I don't want to overstate the situation in this recital. Te Kanawa did not

summon as much tonal gold and silk as in her prime. Every now and then, especially when singing the "ee" sound, the voice thinned out. But what registered most strongly was the overall warmth and tenderness in the vocalism. This was an opportunity to bask in lovely music sung with a lovely style and given lovely accompaniment by pianist Brian Zeger (his technical and expressive gifts proved formidable all evening). It wasn't necessarily an occasion for digging deep or making profound interpretive statements, but there's still a lot to be said for straightforward, elegant, thoroughly beautiful music-making.

The program was weighted towards slow, often soft pieces -- "I don't apologize," Te Kanawa told the crowd, "I sing them because I like them" -- and that gave the soprano abundant opportunity to float many an exquisite, long-held note. Liszt's "Oh! Quand je dors" was one example; Canteloube's "La Delaissado" was another.

I wish the soprano had gone in for full embellishment of the melodic lines in a couple of Handel arias, but her noble phrasing provided ample reward. It would also have been nice to hear a little emotion on the word "Helas!" in Faure's "Apres un reve," but her appraoch to that gem of a song certainly was, well, dreamy. A group of Strauss songs was delivered with vintage Te Kanawa sensitivity.

In a gracious touch, she shared the stage with the WPAS Children of the Gospel Choir -- quite the crowd-pleasing ensemble -- for the "Pie Jesu" from Andrew Lloyd Webber's "Requiem" and the classic Cesar Franck hymn "Panis Angelicus." Directed by Stanley J. Thurston (he didn't need to conduct so broadly), the young singers had some intonation slippage, but proved quite expressive.

In her concluding group of Italian songs, including a couple by Puccini, Te Kanawa sang with a good deal of character and nuance. There were two encores -- "O mio babbino caro" and a Maori folk song, "Po Kari-Kari Anna," the latter sung a cappella to particularly entrancing effect.

The classical music world, just like those of the pop culture variety, craves -- and maybe even needs -- stars. Te Kanawa has long been one of the brightest. As this recital demonstrated, she's still glowing.


Posted by Tim Smith at 9:34 AM | | Comments (3)


check out my review

A great review, as a long time admirer of Dame Kiri I agree that she still has the poise and voice to captivate an audience. She chooses what she wants to sing now, but I love the fact that she doesn`t dumb down her recitals.
As to coughing and spluttering during concerts, whats wrong with people, can`t they take mints or water with them, I always do, just in case. I don`t think they realise they are out and not in the lounge room. I remember a quote from Kiri saying that she heard someone in the audience saying , she`s not as big as she looks on the Tele. People have forgotten how to listen. Long may she continue to sing. we live in hope.


Thanks for commenting. Hope, indeed. TIM

Mr. Smith,

I lived in Washington off and on for 45 years. The city was frequently blessed by critics such as you who know opera, vocal recitals, and great voices. It happened that I was in DC for medical reasons this past weekend and salivated when I heard Te Kanawa would be giving her farewell recital in the city; I lamented that my hosts were unable to get me there to bask one last time in her vocal glory.

There are few great sopranos of the Milanov-Callas-Tebaldi-Caballe era from which I received so much of my instruction in great singing. Te Kanawa found her own niche within the long line of soprano greats and I for one give ardent thanks to the gods of music who gave her to us.

Thanks so much for writing. I hope you get a chance to hear Kiri somewhere before too long; looks like she's not planning on closing down that lovely voice anytime soon. (And thanks for the kind words about me.) TIM

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About Tim Smith
Born and raised in Washington, D.C., I couldn't help but develop a keen interest in politics, but music, theater and visual art also proved great attractions. Music became my main focus after high school. I thought about being a cocktail pianist, but I hated taking requests, so I studied music history instead, earning a B.A. in that field from Eisenhower College (Seneca Falls, N.Y.) and an M.A. from Occidental College (Los Angeles). I then landed in journalism. After freelancing for the Washington Post and others, I was classical music critic for the Sun-Sentinel in South Florida, where I also contributed to NPR. I've written for the New York Times, BBC Music Magazine and other publications, and I'm a longtime contributor to Opera News. My book, The NPR Curious Listener's Guide to Classical Music (Perigee, 2002), can be found on the most discerning remainder racks.

I joined the Baltimore Sun as classical music critic in 2000 and, in 2009, also became theater critic, giving me the opportunity to annoy a whole new audience. In 2010, my original Clef Notes blog expanded to encompass a theatrical component -- how could I resist calling it Drama Queens? I hope you'll find both sides of this blog coin worth exploring and reacting to; your own comments are always welcome and valued (well, most of them, at least).

Think of this as your open-all-hours, cyber green room, where there's always a performer or performance to discuss, some news to digest, or maybe just a little good gossip to share.
Note: Tim Smith now writes about the fine arts at This blog will be kept in place as an archive for an indefinite period. Please visit the new location to get the latest Mid-Atlantic arts coverage.
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