Classical Music: An embarrassment of riches

Kiri te Kanawa and Andrea Bocelli Hampton Court
First day of the Lord's Test, Ladies' Day at Ascot, Wimbledon four days away: rain guaranteed, and only an incurable optimist would organise an open-air concert (shelter for VIPs only) for such a day. In the event, Kiri te Kanawa's concert at Hampton Court began in sunshine and ended in twinkling starlight, with not a raindrop to intervene. Someone up there must like her.

And who wouldn't? The reference books tell us that she made her debut as Carmen with Northern Opera in 1968, but the intervening decades have only added radiance, and the voice still sounds pretty spectacular too, even if there were blemishes. The microphone sometimes found a metallic edge when she pushed hard, and in her first aria, "Se come voi" from Puccini's Le Villi, she and conductor Robin Stapleton didn't quite find common cause. Then on the final note of "Senza mamma" from the same composer's Suor Angelica, the voice momentarily stopped altogether.

Well, it was a cold evening and, until that moment, the piece had exactly the right melancholy timbre. Although Te Kanawa performs Puccini often enough, it's not necessarily the repertoire that you immediately associate with her, perhaps because, unlike Mozart, Puccini absolutely insists that his heroines are young and, emotionally at least, innocent. One characteristic of the voice that works well in this repertoire is its utterly adult richness, antidote to the sentimentality that Puccini so easily succumbs to.

That same quality is what, for this listener, makes it the wrong voice for show tunes such as Richard Rodgers's "You'll Never Walk Alone". She's careful to scale the voice down so that it doesn't overwhelm the material but, instead, it becomes a mere breathy whisper, unsupported by the chest, sometimes obliterated by the orchestra (the BBC Concert Orchestra). Most of the second half of the programme went the same way, and when she returned to Puccini for an encore, the opening phrases of "O mio babbino caro" got applause, as if everyone were relieved to get back to opera.

Her guest for the evening was Andrea Bocelli, another of the tenors to have been lined up for Pavarotti's throne. Amplification makes it difficult to tell, but it seemed a loud voice, willing to indulge in the merest hint of a sob, although not blatant. There is a hint of toughness, but as it swelled in "Che gelida manina" from La Boheme we felt the thrill of an authentically Italianate tenor let loose. His blindness may, or may not, inhibit a stage career, but this is a real voice, despite some rough gear changes between chest and head voice. When Te Kanawa joined him for "O soave fanciulla" (Boheme again), there was that pricking behind the eyes as the tear ducts responded, even if the duet ended on a sour note. It would have been good to hear more of the two voices together, but all we got was an engaging "Lippen schweigen" from Lehr's (German) Die lustige Witwe, with Bocelli singing in Italian and Te Kanawa in English. Very odd.

Kiri te Kanawa's `Solo e amore: Puccini's Arias' is available on Erato