Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Chin-Cin-Chin, Kiri! The Dame's Farewell

Again, due to our technical difficulties with this blog, we have been delayed in posting this review of Kiri's final farewell to Opera in Cologne. Sam was there:

Der Rosenkavalier
2 April 2010, 17 April

Lieder Recital
21 April


It’s hard for me to believe, that 41 years have gone by since I first heard Kiri Te Kanawa sing. That was at a performance of La Donna del Lago at the St. Pancras Festival in London.

What struck me at that performance was her extraordinary beauty: tall, blonde, large penetrating eyes. The voice -- a pirate recording of that performance substantiates this -- was pretty but hardly extraordinary, the technique, especially in the coloratura passages, seemed serviceable but hardly a match for the competition of that time -- Caballé, Gencer and Gianna D’Angelo for starters. If luck would have it, she could make a meal out of her package of gifts. And thanks to luck, hard work and shrewd career moves she has made not merely a meal but served up a delectable banquet to legions of fans.

Now Dame Kiri apparently is taking leave of the operatic stage, although she will continue giving recitals. She is said to have chosen Cologne for her stage farewell because she launched her career as a top-line artist here. She also has maintained friendships with her fans in this city and feels at home here -- so much so that she cooled her heels in the shadow of Cologne Cathedral for two weeks (“very relaxing,” she told her audience at the last of three appearances at Cologne’s opera house.)

For her Farewell in costume, she wisely chose the Marschallin: Actually, it's the leading role of Rosenkavalier, but it requires less singing than the title part, and permits a two-hour respite. It is also a role that has brought Te Kanawa considerable acclaim. She sang it ten times at the Met. While time has taken its toll on the luster of her voice, it remains an attractive instrument -- supple, steady and, absent a gaffe here and there, remarkably focussed. And she remains an astonishingly beautiful woman. What time has given her, that I sorely missed while listening to her Marschallin twice at the Met in 1982, is fascination. Back then, her characterization struck me as somewhat bland -- beyond doubt beautiful, but tame. At both performances last month in Cologne, though, she projected the aging Marschallin’s self-doubt, vague dread and longing for lasting love with gripping simplicity. The telling gestures, the averted glances, the faultlessly timed turns -- all adumbrating the subtleties of the vocal line. Powerful stuff.

Her portrayal last month in Cologne was undoubtedly informed by misfortunes in her personal life -- her husband of many years left her suddenly, emailing her notice of his departure; a swindler recently made off with a Madoff-proportion of her savings.

The Kölner Oper surrounded Te Kanawa with a strong cast that complemented rather than supported her, drawn largely from its resident roster. Most notable: Bjarni Thor Kristianson as possibly the most boorish Ochs I’ve witnessed live, Jutta Böhnert singing an elegant Sophie, and Claudia Mahnke, ill-costumed and a bit short for the statuesque Te Kanawa, but ardent and supremely musical as Oktavian. Patrick Ringborg led the superb Gürzenich Orchester in both performances with fleet precision.

Günter Krämer’s production threw no curve-balls except for an annoying detail in the the third act, which takes place in a tacky restaurant. For some reason he instructed or allowed designer Jürgen Bäckmann to mount posts around the set, that look like stalks of giant green asparagus. One of them bisects the down-stage area, so that you wonder whether the action is taking place in two parts of the eatery. It also forced Te Kanawa to make her way around the post, as she came forward to take her calls with the rest of the cast.

For her final appearance of her fortnight in Cologne, Te Kanawa gave a song recital that included generous morceaux of Mozart, Richard Strauss, Cantaloube, Guastavino, Ginestera and Puccini. The question was whether a singer in the autumn of her career could withstand the rigors of singing more or less continuously for the better part of two hours. For Kiri Te Kanawa, the answer, at least on 21 April, was a resounding, of course. For all the fragility she has projected so effectively at appropriate moments in her performances and the friendliness with which she treats her fans, this Dame is one tough dame.

Her exemplary resilience took center-stage during an incident which took place shortly after the recital began. Just as she was traversing the middle passage of Strauss’ elegiac “Morgen,” the cell-phone belonging to the aisle-sitter directly in front of me began its own recital of Top Hits from Hell. As the poor dear frantically rummaged through what looked more like a steamer trunk than a purse -- to a hissing chorus redolent with Teutonic imprecations, I instantly gathered from the sundry paraphernalia she was exhuming, including a massive set of keys she hurled to the floor with a resounding clunk (E-flat minor, second inversion?), that she must be the arts critic from the local woman’s detention center. By the time she found the melodious and very loud mobile and turned it off -- but not before carefully reading the caller display, Dame Kiri had nearly finished “Morgen,” missing neither a beat nor dropping a bangle. Whereupon she and her superb accompanist Julian Reynolds promptly retreated backstage for what must surely have been a round of bitter lemon, straight up.

Returning to the stage fully composed, Dame Kiri turned to the lady and said quietly in English: “I could have killed you.” Others, including myself, might have done the deed for her, but thinking the mobile madam was indeed a critic, I desisted out of professional courtesy.

She then turned to the audience and warned, also auf Englisch, “If it happens again, a murder will take place.”

Which brings me to the one estimable flaw of Dame Kiri’s recital. During the intermission, I struck up a conversation with the lady sitting next to me. She told me she was enjoying the concert but found Te Kanawa’s German pronunciation extremely poor. She went on to say, that such faults prevented her from grasping what Te Kanawa was trying to convey emotionally. The lady’s case was also supported by Kiri’s banter between some of the song sets. I don’t ever recall attending a concert or serious music event in the US where a foreign artist did not address his/her public in English, however poorly. Likewise, I have never until this recital been present at a concert outside the US, where an English-speaking artist spoke only English while singing in other languages. You might argue that nearly everybody speaks English, especially in Germany. I have not found that to be the case.

If a singer’s linguistic skills leave something to be desired, maybe costumes do help disguise the flaw. Case in point: Kiri Te Kanawa’s operatic career.

© Sam Shirakawa

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