All pink and grey and pretty, this nattily packaged 4 CD box set collects four of Kiri Te Kanawa's studio recordings made between 1988 and 1997. She is thus found here in prime vocal condition, singing in three languages and under four different, distinguished conductors on two discs devoted to Italian opera and one each to French and German opera, the second disc being wholly devoted to the composer whose idiom her creamy, radiant voice often suited ideally: Puccini.
Renowned especially for her singing of leading ladies in Strauss and Mozart operas, the absence of the latter, with the exception of one aria for Pamina, is noticeable here. No Countess, no Fiordiligi, no Elvira - and, for that matter, no Desdemona or Amelia, even though we hear her sing three other Verdi heroines from Il trovatore", "La traviata" and "La forza del destino".
Still, there is no claim from Warner that this represents a "Best of" collection or a comprehensive review of her career; it is simply a convenient and attractive repackaging available at a bargain price to admirers of a very un-diva-ish soprano star especially beloved of British and American audiences.
The singing is not flawless; sometimes there is a hint of catch or hoarseness on attempted pianissimo and also blank passages of characterisation which play into the hands of those who accuse her of being dramatically blandness; the very evenness of her tonal emission and registration throughout her range can sometimes create an impression of too much ease where other singers have audibly to struggle.
Ultimately, however, the overwhelming impression is of a voice of surpassing beauty. The ample, soaring top notes in the Verdi arias, the tender, feminine quality so suited to Massenet's plaintive melodies, the unexpected power of her cries of "AzaŽl" in the aria from Debussy's rarely heard "L'enfant prodigue". Arias from Charpentier's "Louise" and "Les pÍcheurs de perles" both indicate that this is a singer of exceptional gifts and versatility. There are surprises here for those who have forgotten how apt is her voice to the stately beauty of Gluck, but if there is one aria which best typifies her supremacy in some repertoire, it is Magda's "Che il bel sogno di Doretta" from "La rondine", with its arching, stratospheric phrases so suited to her voice. Yet she can draw, albeit sparingly, upon a trenchant lower register and rise to the tragic nobility of Leonora and Elisabetta in their desperate appeals to God. I must here put in a word for the beautiful cor anglais solo preceding Marguerite's aria from Berlioz's "La damnation de Faust", played by the Royal Opera House's Graham Salter.
The German album was the last recorded here but the top notes are still pure and plangent, the lower register, following her earlier work on strengthening it after some criticism, fully capable of doing justice to "Totenreich" in the "Ariadne" aria. As always with Dame Kiri, there is some hoarseness and discoloration on the "ee" vowel in the middle of the voice and there is perhaps some very slight loosening of the vibrato, but neither of these things in any way much compromises enjoyment. There is no question whether she can do justice to the Wagner arias: the voice soars as it should, at least as recorded, and makes me wonder why she didn't take on more Wagner on stage. There is scrupulous musicianship and care for the beauty of line here but as much as I enjoy the Weber and the Wagner, the Strauss arias are the glory of this disc, particularly the rapturous apotheosis of Daphne which forms the concluding scene of the opera. The orchestral playing here is as beautiful as the singing; indeed the Philharmonia play divinely under Julius Rudel. The recital ends with a glorious account of Korngold's famous "Glück, das mir verblieb", sung as serenely and beguilingly as any singer before or since.
Not just for Te Kanawa's fans, this set also provides a great survey of the role of the soprano in 19th and 20th Century opera.
Documentation is minimal: no synopses, let alone texts, and just a brief laudatory essay.
[This review also posted on the MusicWeb International website]