It is rather remarkable when a soprano, in her Washington recital debut, can sing to a packed Kennedy Center Concert Hall, plus stage seats, plus standing room. That is what Kiri Te Kanawa did Saturday night. And it seemed an accurate measure of her position in the musical world.
The event was enchanting, plus or minus a few little details.
It was a case of hearing a genuinely major voice at what sounds like its very peak. Te Kanawa, who triumphantly opened the Met season earlier in the week, is also an artist of great intelligence and intuition, able to shift stylistic gears from the baroque to unaccompanied and unnamed Maori folk music without any audible effort. In fact, if there was a single impression that predominated Saturday night, it was this capacity to leap up and down the scale, always right on the note, without the sense of strain and the pauses that would be heard from most other singers.
Consider, for instance, the prospect of a voice of Nilsson-like ease without any of the hardness that has been an essential, and sometimes desirable, part of the Nilsson voice, and you have some notion of Te Kanawa's sound. It's not remotely as big a sound as Nilsson's, but it's got that pinpoint control. The leaps to the high notes were amazingly secure, and the high voice was wonderfully vibrant. The leaps down were also steady, though the low voice is a little thinner. Still, Te Kanawa has an evenness of range that is spectacular.
Also, there is her stage presence. She cultivates a friendly, ingratiating rapport with an audience that is very special -- particularly for sopranos. There is a little touch of the regal -- partly from her smashing good looks -- but there is also a down-to-earth bonhomie. She likes to talk to the crowd, and she brought down the house by saying of one of the five "Songs from the Auvergne" arranged by Canteloube that she had never sung it in concert before and cracked about its esoteric language: "They say that there are just 18 people in the world who know the language, and I hope there's not one of them here tonight."
Te Kanawa started with Handel. There were the two main arias of Cleopatra from "Julius Caesar" and then "Let the Bright Seraphim" from "Samson," which she sang to great acclaim at the royal wedding last year. This music might as well have been made to order for Te Kanawa. It's the perfect vehicle for this kind of voice, which has the heft to make her assured in the most intricate runs and yet lacks the bull-in-a-china-shop weight that normally comes with this. In recent years only Sills and Sutherland have sung this music so well.
Next she changed moods, and languages, to the languorous trances, mixed with tragic overtones, of four of the six Berlioz songs from "Les Nuits d'e'te'." This is music for a lower voice than the Handel, and Te Kanawa sounded just as comfortable down there.
Then came a quartet of English folk songs, into which she sometimes inserted a vinegary sound that gave them an earthy edge. It was a nice, and charming, break in a program of mostly high-brow material.
She ended with Puccini, and here the celebrated Mozart and Strauss stylist was venturing into Scotto and Price country. It was a venture that was good but didn't entirely take fire. She sounded inhibited in a way she never would as Donna Elvira or Countess Almaviva. Maybe it's the newness of the roles. Maybe it's that the voice is less sensuous and less suited to resonant overtones. There were some interesting interpretive details, especially the way she blurted out "cosi," the last word of "Vissi d'arte," instead of lingering on it the way Callas and Price have done.
There were three encores: the "Alleluia" from Mozart's "Exultate Jubilate," a New Zealand folk song called "Waiti Poi," and then Te Kanawa bewitched the audience with a song of her people, an unaccompanied Maori ballad. Some concert.