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Kiri Te Kanawa: Artist Portrait
Giacomo PUCCINI: Gianni Schicchi: O mio babbino caro; Tosca: Vissi d’arte; Madama Butterfly: Un bel di vedremo; Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART: Così fan tutte: Come scoglio; Richard WAGNER: Tannhäuser: Dich, teure Halle; Allmächt’ge Jungfrau; Giacomo PUCCINI: Morire; Canto d’anime; Michel LEGRAND: Magic; The Windmills of Your Mind; 16th CENTURY: Coventry Carol; ANONYMOUS (c. 1420): There is No Rose of Such Virtue; TRINIDADIAN TRADITIONAL: The Virgin Mary Had a Baby Boy; Michel LEGRAND: Blue, Green, Grey and Gone; What Are You Doing the Rest of Your Life?; Giacomo PUCCINI: La Rondine: Ch’il bel sogno di Doretta; Turandot: Signore, ascolta!; Sole e amore; La Bohème: Si. Mi chiamano Mimi ... O soave fanciulla
Kiri Te Kanawa (soprano)
Various orchestras conducted by Kent Nagano, Alain Lombard, Marek Janowski, Michel Legrand and Robin Stapleton. Roger Vignoles (piano)
Recorded 1977 (Mozart) and 1990–1996
WARNER CLASSICS 256461590-2 [72:58]



 

This compilation of recordings made for the Erato and Teldec labels gives us mainly the “late” Kiri Te Kanawa, the exception being the Mozart aria, recorded in the 1970s. And the difference is striking, especially if you play Come scoglio immediately after Butterfly’s Un bel di vedremo, made almost twenty years later. In 1977 the voice was in superb shape: clear, rounded, absolutely even from top to bottom and we recognize her fabulous pianissimos and the seemingly limitless supply of air. Most of these characteristics are still in evidence in the mid-1990s recordings, but there has crept in something extra, something not so pleasant: a widening vibrato and a hardening of the tone, at least in high-lying passages and in forte. The delivery also feels more effortful. Of course she was by then past fifty and it is after all amazing that she, after such a long career, still has retained so much of  the voice. The sheer beauty is still there, her pianissimo singing is as ravishing as ever and her breath control is still stunning. Listen to the final bars of O mio babbino caro, for example, or the start of the Butterfly-aria.

And what about the interpretations? Concentrating on her Puccini, which anyway occupies more than a third of the playing time here, I went back to some of Miss Te Kanawa’s earlier forays into Puccinian territory. In the early 1980s she made a Verdi-Puccini recital for CBS with Sir John Pritchard conducting, and there she recorded most of the arias on this Portrait-disc. I can’t detect any deeper understanding of the characters’ predicaments in her later recordings, the difference being, as I have already implied, a more effortless, even more beautiful singing back in the 1980s. I also listened to her Vissi d’arte on the complete Tosca with Solti. There I hear more emotion than in either the Pritchard or the Nagano recordings. It may be the influence of Solti, it may also be the fact that it was recorded in a complete context. There are also three short songs by Puccini, the third of them, Sole e amore, in effect being the little duet between Rodolfo and Mimi in act 3 of La Bohème, following directly after Mimi’s second aria. This automatically brings me to the one item on this disc that represents the most important reason to hear, and probably buy it: Mimi’s first act aria followed by the duet with Rodolfo. This excerpt is culled from the complete Bohème recording from 1994, led by Nagano. Here Kiri Te Kanawa is absolutely magnificent. The over-used phrase “Kiri is Mimi” is completely appropriate. She acts the part from within. She uses a myriad nuances and voice-colours; one feels one is seeing her. This is not acting; this is being. And it is good to follow Mimi to the end of the act, since her Rodolfo is Richard Leech, one of the best, most natural sounding of latter-day tenors with a true Rodolfo-voice, bright, youthful in timbre.

The disc also gives us the Elisabeth’s two arias from Wagner’s Tannhäuser. They are also to be found on a recommendable Tannhäuser highlights disc which I reviewed quite recently. After some initial disappointment I have come to enjoy them greatly and they are also the only recorded examples of Kiri singing Wagner, apart from her Wood Bird in Haitink’s Siegfried. There is a very blunt ending to Elisabeth’s greeting song, by the way.

Since the disc is entitled “Artist Portrait” it was perhaps unavoidable that some “popular Kiri” is included, since she has recorded a quite considerable amount of lighter fare. Here we get four songs by Michel Legrand, one of them, “Magic”, dedicated to Kiri, and since Monsieur Legrand also conducts the orchestra and presumably plays the piano in “The Windmills of Your Mind”, we have to take it for granted that these should be regarded as authoritative performances. Sad to say, I find much of the singing unbearably mannered. I have admired Kiri Te Kanawa’s singing in a variety of genres and styles since I first heard her in the early 1970s. I love her Eliza in My Fair Lady and even her Maria in West Side Story, but here she indulges in some roller-coaster crooning that almost sounds as if it is a caricature of some unnamed popular singer. The tone is still beautiful but ... She is much better, even delicious, in the three excerpts from a live-recorded Christmas concert from Coventry Cathedral. Singing the first few bars of the “Coventry Carol” a cappella almost gives the impression of a boy soprano. Very touching, in fact. And “The Virgin Mary Had a Baby Boy” is a rousing calypso, the chorus rhythmically even more alert than the soloist.

Sound quality is excellent, playing time is generous, Raymond McGill’s booklet text gives a fine description of Kiri Te Kanawa’s career. The ordering of items seems a bit haphazard with Puccini excerpts sprinkled here and there. Is it worth buying? Well, as I have indicated, the voice shows signs of wear and her earlier recordings are to be preferred, but there is still much to admire and her Mimi is almost worth the price of the disc.

Göran Forsling



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