Kiri Te Kanawa has always been a class act - and the wonder is, the act seems to be ageless. At sixty something, this Dame is still smashing in something strapless, and her voice sounds even more ravishing than she looks. At what was billed as a "farewell" concert at Symphony Hall last weekend, she soared through a sweetly thrilling evening of twentieth-century art and novelty songs that left the audience crying for more (indeed, she drew out her last farewell to four encores).
That the voice should still be so lustrous is something of a wonder - but it's also clear that we have Dame Kiri's own care and foresight to thank for that. She's always been a bit more "singer" than "actress," and on Sunday her paradoxical mix of frank stage presence (she let us know when a buzzing fly upset her breath control) and thoughtful reserve was very much in evidence: she didn't lavish herself on us, but instead carefully, intelligently projected what is still an instrument to die for, and which she is clearly conserving (she joked that a "farewell concert" hardly means "good-bye," which is good news).
The core of the evening was a set of exquisite love songs by Richard Strauss (with whom she has long been identified) in which she conjured a poignantly melting rapture that seemed to stretch to the very top of her range. (Pianist Warren Jones meanwhile accompanied her with supple subtlety - though he did stretch the tender hush of "Morgen" almost to the breaking point.) Dame Kiri later found subtle variations of the same palette in another suite by Henri Duparc, but tempered all the trembling sensitivity with a witty ditty or two from Francis Poulenc and Aaron Copland (in which the diva gave us an amusing glimpse of her old power with the line, "Why do they shut me out of Heaven? Do I sing TOO LOUD??"). She also introduced a strikingly good new ballad from Jake Heggie (who used to turn pages for her!) set to the haunting final speech from Terrence McNally's Master Class - a perfect choice for a "farewell concert."
The performance lost a little focus as Te Kanawa ventured from the published program without clearly announcing her choices, but the new song, Cilea's "Io son l'umile ancella," was entrancing, and the encores eventually wrapped with that sublime piece of soprano catnip (that every audience secretly craves too), Puccini's "O mio babbino caro." It was, in its way, the perfect farewell - only let's hope it's just adieu, as they say, and not really good-bye.