- The Washington Times - Monday, November 16, 2009

Renowned soprano Kiri Te Kanawa’s Saturday-evening recital at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall was billed as her “farewell” appearance in Washington. Having effectively retired from the operatic stage after singing the title role in Samuel Barber’s “Vanessa” with the Washington National Opera several seasons ago, she has apparently decided to wind down her concert appearances now, as well.

Miss Te Kanawa’s voice is not big and overwhelming. It doesn’t need to be. Like fine china, it’s translucent, intimate, welcoming, yet at times tinged with a delicate shade of melancholy that rounds out its character. This proved perfectly suited to Saturday’s vocal selections, making her concert seem more like a small gathering of close friends.

Impeccably, almost stealthily accompanied by pianist Brian Zeger, her recital was a personal meditation on love, longing and loss. By design, Miss Te Kanawa’s program lacked the showy vocal fireworks generally beloved by opera fans. She explained to the audience that she often preferred quieter musical moments, and, indeed, this evening seemed the perfect antidote for our boisterous new century’s decided lack of taste and elegance.

Miss Te Kanawa opened the evening with several thoughtful selections from Handel’s operas, breaking the mood only briefly with Antonio Vivaldi’s short, sprightly, rarely heard “Io son quel gelsomino” (“I am that jasmine”).

The program’s second and third sets featured songs by Liszt, Debussy and Faure. While the second of the three Liszt songs, “Comment, disaient-ils” (“‘How,’ say the men”) demonstrated some of the Hungarian composer’s customary swagger, the remaining two pieces explored his romantic side, benefiting here from Miss Te Kanawa’s exquisite interpretative powers.

The romantic mood continued as Miss Te Kanawa visited the otherworldly realms of Debussy’s “Romance” and Faure’s gauzy, evocative early song “Apres un reve” (“After a dream”).

The program’s second half highlighted works by Richard Strauss, Ermanno Wolf-Ferrari and Giacomo Puccini. More surprising, however, were three selections from Joseph Canteloube’s “Chants d’Auvergne,” his settings of folk songs from a rural region of France. These charming pieces put a bouncy, rustic spin on the evening’s motifs and were sung with obvious relish by Miss Te Kanawa.

Also on tap in the recital’s second half were performances of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s popular version of “Pie Jesu” and Franck’s ubiquitous but still classic “Panis Angelicus.” For these selections, Miss Te Kanawa was joined by the Washington Performing Arts Society’s Children of the Gospel Choir. Alas, the young women were persistently flat, particularly in the Webber, but the soloist was able to graciously adapt.

At the close of the recital, an enthusiastic audience demanded encores and got two, a phenomenal rendition of “O mio babbino caro” from Puccini’s “Gianni Schicchi,” plus a traditional Maori song, “Po Kari-Kari Anna.”

And so Washington bids its final adieu to one of the finest vocal talents of our time. Or maybe not.

Addressing her fans, Miss Te Kanawa acknowledged that “they say this is my final concert.” But with a sly glance, she hinted that “final” might “not be for the rest of my life.”

★★★★

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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