Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Fond farewell

Von Stade in the pink at Carnegie Hall(Richard Termine/ The New York Times).

Symphony Hall was packed last Sunday for the Celebrity Series "farewell concert" of much-loved mezzo Frederica von Stade, the New Jersey girl who made good at the Met, and just about every major opera house in the world. "Flicka," as she's known to friends, brought a very-special-friend with her to bid Boston good-bye - Kiri Te Kanawa, whom we last saw in these parts two years ago, looking and sounding fabulous in her own "farewell concert." And surprisingly, the ensuing afternoon felt like just what these two dazzling divas insisted it was: a long, affectionate duet between superstars who do indeed happen to be good friends.

To be frank, I'd expected (and hoped) there'd be more focus on von Stade, and so was slightly surprised when Dame Kiri (at left) handled most of the serious singing. This seemed all the stranger because "Flicka" seemed in fine voice; her upper register in particular sounded rich and commanding as ever, and was still underpinned by that lustrous hint of smoky vibrato. But von Stade was definitely not pushing herself; most of her songs were hearty and quick, and relied on diction rather than sustained tones (particularly in her middle register). The upper end of Te Kanawa's voice is likewise probably in best shape - indeed, her meltingly transparent high notes are as ravishingly opalescent as ever. The difference between the two was simply that Te Kanawa picked better material to showcase her strengths. Some of her songs, in fact, we'd heard two years before (two witty ditties from Poulenc and Copland), but there was also some lovely new material - particularly memorable were Poulenc's sadly lilting "The paths of love," and the dramatic "It is thus that you are" from Metamorphoses.

"Flicka," meanwhile, rarely ventured into dramatic territory, and only occasionally wandered into the love-lorn groves of so much art-song. She was clearly in the mood for a farewell party rather than some kind of wake, and all but bubbled with a sense of knockabout fun. She and Kiri kicked off the concert together (von Stade in hot, hot pink, Te Kanawa in a strapless crimson sheath) with the duet between Marcellina and Susanna from Figaro - a charming choice, given the two met nearly forty years ago, in different roles in the same opera (a YouTube from roughly the same period, with each in their signature roles of the Countess and Cherubino, from Glyndebourne, below).

Te Kanawa and von Stade in Figaro, with Ileana Cotrubas as Susanna.

The two then traded Mozart arias (they sang together again, in blissfully blended harmony, for a stretch of Cosi fan tutte, too), before settling into the program, each often watching the other from a relaxed, attentive pose against the piano, or at other times actually joining in. Indeed, von Stade's best moment might have been her duet with Te Kanawa in "Shepherd's Song," by Joseph Canteloube, one of a suite of the composer's Chants d'Auvergne featured in the program's second half (songs often sung with full orchestra, but which sounded lovely here, too, to the spare accompaniment of pianist Brian Zeger). By now both divas had switched costumes - Te Kanawa was dazzling in a gasp-inducing pure-white wrap, von Stade jaunty in a shining black pantsuit. In another nod to her many "pants" roles, "Flicka" then offered a beautiful aria from Ambroise Thomas's Mignon, followed by an elegantly ribald reading of "Bois de Boulogne," from Jardins de Paris by Daniel Schmitt and Marc Berthomien. Te Kanawa likewise essayed lovely renderings of Gershwin's "Summertime" and "By Strauss" before joining von Stade for a final, hilarious duet, the yowling "Duetto buffo di due gatti" by Rossini.

And then at last it seemed we were really alone with just von Stade. There were a few heartfelt moments among the ensuing encores; von Stade included two songs, by Carol Hall and Jake Heggie, written for her daughters, before wrapping with "La Vie en Rose," a favorite of hers, which she sang with all the burnished warmth and rueful joy she's known for. And then, all too quickly, it was time to say good-bye.

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