Dame Kiri te Kanawa made her entrance with pianist Terence Dennis, and immediately began to sing. There was a flash of light, and Dame Kiri stopped her performance. "No flash photography" she said, and the audience applauded. This was virtually the only spoken communication from Dame Kiri in the first half of the concert, which was a pity, as she is more than capable of establishing a rapport with her audience. After several of her selections she left the stage, with her pianist, without explanation, to return some minutes later. One wondered if Dame Kiri was having to surmount some undefined difficulty.
The program began with beautiful if lesser-known pieces by Mozart and Puccini, sung with delicacy and precision.
Two showpiece operatic pieces by Franz Liszt provided a good contrast to what we had just heard. Dame Kiri performed one in Italian and one in French – 'Oh quand je dors' and 'Pace non trovo' – and these allowed her to demonstrate strong stable control in her upper register.
During one of Dame Kiri's absences in the first half I heard one of the audience say "It's beautiful, but rather remote, and not very engaging" and at that stage of the performance, I have to agree.
In the second half, Dame Kiri, wearing the same gown as in the first half, began with the delightful "jeu d'esprit" by Gershwin entitled "By Strauss". Unfortunately for the song to have its effect we needed to hear the elegantly crafted lyrics, and the muted response of the audience suggests that most of us didn't.
Then came "Scarborough Fair" and "O Waly Waly" and the atmosphere in the hall became alive, as Dame Kiri sang with elegant simplicity, giving a sense of timelessness and depth to the familiar words and tune.
Terence Denis, the accompanist, gave an extraordinary performance throughout the concert. Rarely have I heard someone of this sensitivity and skill, able to enhance his singer, while, one suspects, adapting instantly to the inevitable idiosyncrasies and grace notes that are inherent in live performance. He is clearly a wonderful musician, content in this instance to use his skill in the service of a superlative diva.
The final selection was based on the master classes that Maria Callas conducted at the Juilliard School of Music.
I am certain that what we do matters," that "we have made this world a better place," says Callas at one point in the text. "Whether I continue singing doesn't matter. Besides, it's all there in the recordings."
Perhaps the same could be said of Dame Kiri who told us that at the age of 69 she was soon to retire.
And yet, when as her first encore she sang Puccini's 'O mio babbino caro' that indefinable magic was back - a spell-binding upper register and beautiful velvety tone married to a capacity to communicate emotion, and to engage an audience. As Terence Denis played the notes of "Hine E Hine" from Dame Kiri's Maori heritage we were no longer listening to a performance, but transported into another world.
It took all evening to get there, but it was well worth it.
Dame Kiri te Kanawa 2013 Australian Tour Dates:
QPAC Concert Hall: 9th March 13
Gold Coast Arts Centre: 11 March
Port Macquarie Arts Centre: 13 March
Joan Sutherland Performing Arts Centre, Penrith: 15 March
Her Majesty's Theatre, Ballarat : 23 March