MUSIC / Beauty, serenity, anything more?

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The Independent Culture
ON WEDNESDAY at the Barbican the pianist John Lill celebrated his 50th birthday, with Yuri Temirkanov and the Royal Philharmonic. On Thursday at the Albert Hall, Kiri Te Kanawa celebrated hers with Andre Previn and the London Symphony Orchestra - plus Clive James, the Prince of Wales, Paul McCartney (on video), and a Maori raiding party flown in from New Zealand to do action songs in grass skirts. Jane Asher baked the cake; and for the famous names and frocks alone, Dame Kiri triumphed. John Lill's frocks aren't nearly so amusing.

Before I retreat into my critical corner about all this, let me say that Kiri's 50th was fun. That the LSO had a riotous time was obvious even through the disco-pulsing platform lights which bathed them in alternate blasts of seasick blue and jaundice yellow. And, as tacky as the show became, Dame Kiri somehow retained an inviolate dignity: the radiant, lovely, untouchable presence she always manages to be.

In that sense, Kiri's birthday show was representative of her qualities as an artist. Vocally, it was largely Radio 2 crossover repertory: the sort of material that pulls an audience and that she clearly likes to sing, although she doesn't sing it well. There wasn't much to tell you what she stands for as a serious operatic voice: a bit of Strauss and Mozart squeezed between the Act 1 garret scene duet from La Boheme (with Dennis O'Neill) and items by Charpentier and Korngold.

The message you did get was of the curious detachment in performance - almost a withdrawal of soul - that has been both the blessing and curse of Kiri's career. Her Unique Selling Point is sheer beauty of voice, and arguably no other lyric soprano of our time has managed to maintain such a pristine purity of sound across a quarter-century career. Between 1971, when she first sang the Countess in The Marriage of Figaro at Covent Garden, and last Thursday, when she sang the Countess's aria 'Porgi amor', you would be hard pushed to identify any deterioration in technique, fluency or all-round loveliness.

But Kiri has preserved her beauty at a price. By limitation. Except for forays into showbiz, she has hardly ventured beyond the quintessential lyric soprano roles such as Mozart's Countess, Elvira and Fiordiligi; Verdi's Violetta, Desdemona and Amelia; Puccini's Mimi and Manon. She is, of course, a glorious Strauss voice and renowned as Arabella and the Marschallin. But even the Marschallin is slightly out of her ambit (it needs more weight). And the couple of times she has attempted more dramatic roles, such as Tosca, haven't worked.

So there she is, a princess in an ivory tower of repertory, and not exactly probing the possibilities within its confines. Her metier is serenity. I don't say that she doesn't feel her roles or isn't conscientious (no soprano so meticulous about legato phrasing, and control, and honouring the detail of a score, deserves to be called less than conscientious) but she doesn't place those feelings prominently in the voice. To use an opera queen's expression, she doesn't give more than she has to. She won't compromise the beauty of the sound - least of all with little irritants like consonants - and the result is a lack of definition, of dramatic truth. The sole concession to dramatic truth she made on Thursday was to come on for 'Che gelida manina' wearing a wrap.

Having made these mean- spirited observations, I should add that Kiri's inviolate virtues rise above criticism as they do above everything else. She is a joy to hear, a vocal phenomenon; and that she is known and loved for it by millions of listeners throughout the world (600 million when she sang at the Royal Wedding in 1981) can't be a bad thing for music. I hope she had a very happy day, and just wish . . . well . . . that she could give me more.

There was more tacky fun at the Coliseum this week as the English National Opera revived its 1987 Philip Prowse production of The Pearl Fishers. Prowse's idea of Eastern exoticism is pure tandoori takeaway, with a lurid pink and blue set (his own design) and dramatic gestures borrowed from the Rudolf Valentino school of acting. But you could say as much of the piece itself, a youthful Bizet score (his first to reach the stage) that responds with vigour to a bad libretto. And Prowse's staging has been toned down since its last appearance. I quite enjoyed it. And I definitely enjoyed the vocal performances. John Hudson, ENO's new house tenor, didn't quite live up to his promise when he sang Rodolfo in Boheme last autumn; but here he impresses with a bright and pleading tonal fulness. Gillian Webster's Leila makes a fine sound, too.

But the opera of the week was La Finta Giardiniera at the Guildhall School. This is rare Mozart, written at 18 and traditionally consigned to the catalogue of Mozartian juvenilia. But it is a fascinating, fully formed work (even at 18, Mozart had seven stage scores behind him) and it tackles, with engaging melodic fecundity, one of the abiding preoccupations of baroque and classical theatre. Browse through Grove's and you'll find no shortage of operas with the word Finta in the title: La Finta Pazza, La Finta Savia, La Finta Semplice and so on. 'Finta' means 'pretended'. La Finta Giardiniera, The False Garden- girl, is a Rousseauesque study of the perfect world, a garden, impaired by the pretences, delusions and false relationships of its inhabitants - which have to be sorted out (by a purgative dose of madness) if order is to be restored.

In broad terms, the narrative looks forward to what happens in the garden scene in Figaro and pre-marital trials of The Magic Flute. And Stephen Medcalf's delightful production - set in a post-modern garden whose triangular motifs proclaim the Pythagorean regime of classical order - provides a clear, crisp context for what might otherwise appear a frothily inconsequential narrative. The student cast was effective, with two voices - Catrin Wyn Davies and Gwyn Hughes Jones - of real promise. The orchestra played well under Clive Timms. And although the score was heavily cut, no perceptible damage was done.

Finally, a note on the New York Festival of Song, a collective of voices and pianists who appeared in the Wigmore Hall's superlative American song series last Sunday. Like our own Songmakers' Almanac, they give themed programmes. This one was a social iconography of modern America - from small-town childhoods to Aids - as set by American art songwriters from Charles Ives onwards. That so little of it was known repertory testified to the suppressed life of American art songs, always looking over the fence at their counterparts in popular culture and never making it alongside them. But there were some wonderful discoveries in this programme, including one song of heart-stopping beauty by a composer, Aaron Kernis (b 1960), whose work I'd never heard before but will from now on take as a personal quest. The New York Festival of Song must be invited back, with more of the same please.

'The Pearl Fishers' continues at the ENO, Thurs & Sat (071-836 3161).

(Photograph omitted)