Kiri Te Kanawa is almost too good to be true.
The celebrated Maori songbird from New Zealand has beauty galore and a soft, cover-girl glamour that makes her infinitely alluring. What's more, charm seems to flow from her very pores and grace comes second nature.
When she's in top form--as was the case Sunday afternoon at a sold-out Royce Hall, UCLA--the soprano can pour out endless waves of gorgeous, cultivated sound. She can fill a listener with pleasures to be seen and heard and felt, all at the same time. Often the happy confluence raises goose bumps.
But it wasn't always like this. Seven years ago, at her local debut, Te Kanawa had not yet been dubbed Dame Kiri. Her biography had not yet been written. Her popular appeal via a recording with the late Nelson Riddle had not even been an idea.
These things, per se, do not an artist make. For Te Kanawa, however, the experience gathered along the way has constituted the crucial difference between merely performing and drawing an audience into her embrace.
Sunday, the singer knew how to be elegant yet comfortable and genuinely warm as fans greeted her entrance with prolonged applause. She even chatted with latecomers taking their seats in the front row, showing an ease and spontaneity that were alien to the shy, tentative recitalist of 1979.
Fortunately, the voice has not changed. And it was as full, flexible and lustrous as ever. Only now there is a bona fide personality to go with it. Throughout a program shrewdly chosen to show off her vocal strengths as well as to balance introspection and playfulness, Te Kanawa sang magnificently.
She began with the Baroque splendors of Scarlatti, sounding
warmed up even at the start, and quickly moved to the more dramatic ground of Gluck and Niccolo Piccini. No matter how persuasive Te Kanawa was in these uncommon items, she needed only to turn to Mozart for a model display of his feminine mystique in two varieties.
But for some, Te Kanawa is the ideal Richard Strauss singer--one who captures in her voice the sparkle of spring water, who soars above the staff with a combination of refinement and abandon, who joins notes seamlessly on an upward spiraling line.
Among four of the Strauss Lieder she made little glories of the waltz fragments in "Schlechtes Wetter"--together with her remarkably sensitive accompanist, Roger Vignoles--and traced the heart of nostalgia in "Heimkehr."
The Jewel Song from Gounod's "Faust" lacked somewhat for diamantine brilliance, and vocal presence fell away for the lower-octave stanza of Canteloube's Lullaby from "Chants d'Auvergne." These and Te Kanawa's tendency to let involvement flag just perceptibly were the only quibbles. Otherwise, she mastered new heights of comic finesse (Victor Herbert's "Prima Donna" parody) and earthy character in the other Canteloube songs.