We may be ugly Americans abroad, but at home Americans bend over backwards to welcome different cultures and performers from romantic places. Nana Mouskouri is from Greece -- land of emotion, where happiness and tragedy are equally celebrated, where it's all right for men to cry, where tears are shed in happiness as well as sadness -- and welcomed she was, last night at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall.
Mouskouri's folk idiom is closer to John Denver's than to Pete Seeger's. The material she chooses to interpret overflows with sentiment and at times sentimentality.
Mouskouri may not have one of the best female voices around, but she has one of the most unusual. Afflicted with a congenital defect -- one of her vocal chords is narrower than the others -- in certain registers her voice resonates in a throaty vibrato. It's a voice that is well-matched to the authenticity of ethnic folk interpretations. On "Le Ciel Est Noir," a French chanson, the strength and purity of her interpretations was nothing short of intriguing. And on the Greek songs her authority was unquestionable.
The bulk of her material, however, seesawed between the melodramatic and the Pollyanna-ish. It was a shame to dissipate her vocal potential on such material. A case in point was an adaptation of Bellini's compelling aria "Casta Diva" from the opera "Norma" that was both schmaltzy and illegitimate.
It was an evening of music that confirms time-tested sentiments rather than challenging them.