The present reissue, culled from three separate programs, demonstrates
that it is possible for an opera singer successfully to cross
over into music-theatre repertoire. It also illustrates a right
way and a wrong way to go about it.
Given Te Kanawa's rise to prominence and popularity after her command
appearance as soloist for the wedding of Prince Charles, the
ensuing backlash was more or less inevitable, with her crossover
albums coming in for particular scorn among would-be cognoscenti.
Still, "traditional" Broadway and standards always
suited her: an early recital album from New Zealand - issued
Stateside on a Westminster Gold LP - included songs from West
Side Story alongside the opera and operetta chestnuts.
The five Gershwin tracks show what Te Kanawa could do, in the right
vocal shape. Under the guidance of John McGlinn - Broadway's
version of a period-practice specialist - she shows a wonderful
feeling for the sense and style of the songs, injecting some
breathiness into the zippy chorus of I got rhythm,
adopting a slithery manner and attack in Summertime,
a jazz-inflected opera aria. And she does this without sacrificing
vocal quality, maintaining a dark, full tone and an even legato.
The operatic devices don't always quite work: in I got
rhythm, for example, Te Kanawa's long-held notes over
the male quartet are too heady to carry the requisite excitement.
But it doesn't hurt to be able to cap Summertime with
a zingy sustained top A - the final float of Love walked
in, by comparison, is tight - or to realize the affectionate
parody of By Strauss with a round, soaring sound. Incidentally,
it's good to hear these pieces presented in presumably authentic
full orchestral garb, including the longer operatic introduction
The three Jerome Kern numbers, recorded five years later, show slight
vocal wear, but the performances are convincing. Te Kanawa
musters a surprisingly tough mixture in the low range for
her sentimental but affecting voicing of The folks who
live on the hill. The tone is warm and enveloping in Smoke
gets in your eyes; the legato carries the words easily
and simply in The last time I saw Paris.
By 1996, when Te Kanawa recorded the Irving Berlin numbers, Te Kanawa
is making do with diminished vocal resources. The soprano
mostly rides along the upper side of her voice, almost never
releasing her full sound. This seems like a useful setup for
text projection, but the edginess and lack of depth in the
voice become wearying over the course of fifteen songs - the
little-girl sound in Cheek to cheek is especially annoying.
Then, too, what sounded in the earlier recordings like stylistic obeisances
have frozen into full-fledged mannerisms. Te Kanawa will sometimes
delay the sounding of the vowel in a word or syllable - as
distinct from her actual back-phrasing, which is fine - to
no clear purpose. The indiscriminate admixture of breath into
the tone - in mid-phrase, as well as on attacks - seems designed
to hide the weak patch in the singer's lower midrange. In
Isn't this a lovely day, once past a squeaky start,
Te Kanawa "warbles," singing on a preponderance
of mouth resonance, without sufficient support - which proves
no more effective here than in her operatic roles.
The problems notwithstanding, there are lovely moments in these numbers
- those moments that call for "real" singing. In
Let's face the music and dance, the octave rise and
full-bodied "high" phrase at the end of each refrain
is effective. Te Kanawa, singing out straightforwardly in
the verse of They say it's wonderful, draws the listener
into the song. In Easter Parade, she leans nicely on
the note connecting the verse and the chorus, providing uplift.
The other songs needed more of that directness: in Say
it isn't so, the breathiness undercuts the sultriness;
in Always, the soprano keeps threatening to sing out
but never quite does so, producing nothing but frustration.
Jonathan Tunick's arrangements are in no way "authentic,"
but they're imaginative, sometimes helpfully so: the cabaret-ish
setting of I got the sun in the morning, with its walking
bass, plays to his soloist's laid-back strengths - Te Kanawa
isn't a stage Annie Oakley by a long shot. Brass interjections
have a welcome big-band impact and verve. Broadway mavens
will start at the interlude of it only happens when I dance
with you, which threatens to veer into Jerry Herman's
I respect much of Te Kanawa's recorded work, both operatic and crossover.
The avid collector, however, would be better advised to hunt
down the full Kiri Sings Gershwin program with McGlinn.
If you do buy this one, dip into the Berlin selections, rather
than listening to them straight through.