Legendary lyric soprano Dame Kiri – as she is affectionately known – is currently touring New South Wales with pianist Terrence Dennis, and I had the good fortune to see them perform last Friday night in Chatswood's smart new concert hall, the Concourse.
The program began gently with four simple yet beautiful folk songs of the Auvergne arranged by composer Joseph Canteloube. Dame Kiri introduced the songs with a humorous story of how she came to study the Occitan language – the language of the Auvergne – and immediately revealed a warm, sincere and humorous personality to the audience. The voice and piano were well balanced and the songs were sung with great delicacy and simplicity, although Ms Te Kanawa's voice sounded a little tired in the middle register initially. Accustomed as I am to these songs performed with orchestra, it was interesting to hear them live with piano accompaniment only, and in spite of someone behind me saying: 'I don't like the choice of songs much!', I enjoyed the sincerity and simplicity of these beautiful songs.
The 'Songs of the Auvergne' were followed by two pieces by Franz Liszt and the more operatic mood of these provided a good contrast to what we had just heard. Liszt is of course well known for his dazzling piano music but few realize that he also composed sixty songs. Dame Kiri performed one in Italian and one in French – 'Pace non trovo' and 'Oh quand je dors' respectively – and these gave her the opportunity to show off her splendid upper register which is still powerful, absolutely stable and full of warmth.
The final piece before interval was an aria from Samuel Barber's opera 'Vanessa' and Dame Kiri gave a quite considerable explanation of what has transpired in the opera before the aria 'Do not utter a word' is sung. She managed to bring humour into her explanation and set up the performance in a way that made the aria far more meaningful than had she not introduced the piece. Barber's aria, although dramatic, is not satisfying in the way that Puccini or Verdi arias are, and although this performance did not move us to tears, it was nevertheless performed with great commitment and dramatic integrity. The singer's diction was excellent, enabling us to understand the text easily, and the high range of the aria allowed her to again show off her amazing upper register and the wonderful velvety tone for which she is so famous.
The second half of the evening began with a selection of folk songs arranged by composer Benjamin Britten. Kiri sang 'Scarborough Fair' and 'O Waly, Waly' with such sincerity and purity that I felt quite touched to be hearing this simple music in a world where music is often over produced – perhaps it takes someone as highly trained as the Dame to manage such simplicity. The final song in the bracket was 'Oliver Cromwell', a silly little ditty which causes the singer great difficulty with way too many words to sing – although Dame Kiri did this admirably – and which always gets a laugh from the audience.
Following the folk songs was the 'Final Monologue from Masterclass' by composer Jack Heggie. Based on Maria Callas's final monologue from the play Masterclass, the singer addresses some aspiring young singers and attempts to pass on some of her knowledge and wisdom to them; and as with the 'Vanessa' aria from the first half of the concert, Dame Kiri seemed perfectly at home in this piece and appeared to transform herself into the character. She presented the aria with dignity and inner calm and if we hadn't known we were watching Kiri Te Kanawa we might have thought we were actually at the 1972 New York masterclass with Maria Callas.
Two songs by one of Argentina's most acclaimed composers – Carlos Guastavino – followed the monologue, and the recital finished with 'Cancion al arbol del Olvido' by another Argentinean – Alberto Ginastera. These Spanish language songs suited Dame Kiri well and allowed her mellifluous tone to float beautifully above the piano and into the heart of her appreciative audience, who at the end of the concert demanded three encores, one of which was Puccini's old favourite 'O mio babbino caro'.
This was an enjoyable evening full of beautiful singing and fantastic piano playing. Terence Dennis adapted his playing to the different styles of music with great ease and although Dame Kiri was the 'diva' of the show, her relaxed performance would not have been possible without the support of this wonderful musician at the piano.
I am indeed grateful to have had the opportunity to hear this amazing singer who will retire soon if rumours are to be believed. Not only does she have a truly unique and beautiful instrument, it is a joy to see such a gracious and dignified artist perform live.
Dame Kiri Te Kanawa in Recital
Venue: The Concourse, Concert Hall | Chatswood NSW
Dates: Friday 13 – Saturday 14 April 2012
Tickets: $145.00 – $39.00
Bookings: theconcourse.com.au | Ticketek 1300 795 012 | ticketek.com.au