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
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.
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.
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.
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.