Kiri Te Kanawa, whom the public adores as much as any woman now singing in the opera houses and recital halls, is really two persons -- and, fortunately, the two complement each other with rare grace, as shown Saturday night at Constitution Hall.
One is the great soprano, the New Zealander who leapt to fame in her early twenties with her debut as Countess Almaviva in "The Marriage of Figaro" at Covent Garden, the possessor of one of the world's most lustrous voices, superbly focused, accurate, agile, beautifully musical.
The other is the glamorous personality, strikingly beautiful (with a bewitching smile), a Dame Commander of the British Empire (after she sang at the royal wedding in 1981) and familiar far beyond the music world (she was the only performer to have three records make Billboard's Top 25 Classical list for last year).
There were generous portions of both Te Kanawas at Saturday night's recital. It had been transferred to Constitution Hall by the Washington Performing Arts Society to take advantage of the auditorium's additional seating capacity over the Kennedy Center Concert Hall, a gesture reserved in the past for Vladimir Horowitz and Luciano Pavarotti.
She had postponed the recital from the previous week because of a winter cold and there were still signs of the illness, in her frequent coughing between pieces and in a touch of graininess on an occasional sustained low note. Otherwise, the voice soared with characteristic ease and beauty.
For all Te Kanawa's mass appeal, she has not allowed it to compromise either the quality or the character of her music-making -- by comparison with Pavarotti, for instance.
The program, as usual with Te Kanawa, was a connoisseur's delight, containing not a single overt crowd-pleaser until "Danny Boy" and "Come to the Fair" arrived at the end. In the first half, the most familiar song was Richard Strauss' "Ca cile," which is not exactly an old chestnut.
She began, as usual, with Handel, a composer to whom her lean sound and precise articulation are almost ideally suited (it was Handel she sang at the royal wedding). There were three carefully contrasted arias by the composer, each phrased quite differently.
For instance, the second, "Bel Piacere," required light and very rapid articulation; scaling her voice down to that level was no problem. The following aria, "Lascia Ch'io Pianga," represented the brooding side of the composer. Its long, intense phrases unfolded with great deliberation -- a testament to Te Kanawa's superlative breath control as well as her subtlety of phrasing. It was one of the high points of the evening.
Next came a Mozart concert aria, "Bella mis fiamma, addio . . . ," a dauntingly difficult scene about a lover saying farewell to his queen, which Mozart dashed off while he was in Prague for the premiere of "Don Giovanni." With its rapid, haunting chromatic figures it is so fine that he might have gone on and thrown it into "Don Giovanni," perhaps for Donna Elvira.
Te Kanawa, a great Mozart singer, handled those figures with uncanny control. And one heard growing resonance in the low voice that one did not remember often from the past, except in Strauss' "Four Last Songs," which Te Kanawa sang here with Claudio Abbado and the National Symphony in the late 1970s and which she sang on the sound track of "The Year of Living Dangerously."
It was five Strauss songs that came next on Saturday's program, all of them early ones. "Mein Herz ist stumm mein Herz" was wonderfully pensive, with some glorious highs. And "Ca cile" was suitably excited.
Part 2 of the concert was mostly French -- that is, if you consider the odd dialect of Canteloube's "Songs of the Auvergne" to be a relative of French. Of those works, "Lou Coucut," about the chirping of 500 cuckoos, was a particular delight.
A group of four Duparc songs was memorably sensuous and impressionistic, with especially fine playing from pianist Martin Katz. And the folk songs at the end were full of fun and spice.
The encore began with a surprise, "Summertime" from "Porgy and Bess," seraphically sung. And that was only to be bested by what came next, the famed soprano aria from Puccini's "La Rondine," rapturously sung.
May there be many more such concerts by Dame Kiri.