I like Kiri Te Kanawa. Those who do not say she lacks substance – for me, she embodies the ideal of spontaneous art, the beauty of which has nothing calculated and convinces in its sheer artlessness. She also embodies an ideal of Mozartian and Straussian operatic performance who involves not only exquisite tonal quality and elegant, almost instrumental phrasing, but also an aristocratic stage presence and a certain cool sexiness. She claims that Lisa della Casa was her model – and Lisa della Casa has recognised her influence on her.
However, since Dame Kiri Te Kanawa (and whoever has seen her on stage knows she deserves to be called “dame”) has started to make her operatic appearances rare, Straussian audiences have been left a bit orphan. And I wonder why she has waited until 2010 to say her final good-bye to staged opera – I like to believe that it is no coincidence that Anja Harteros is singing (in concert, it is true) her first Marschallin (only a couple of scenes, it is also true) this very year. Straussians do not need to worry anymore, since the good tradition has finally found a worthy exponent. In any case, it is impossible to be insensitive in an event that represents somehow the end of an era.
At 66, her voice no longer has the silkiness that made her famous, but the tone is unmistakably warm and smooth. She took a while to warm – and her middle register is now somewhat recessed – but one can still feel the magic when everything falls into place, such as in the end of act I, crowned by a velvety floating pianissimo. Her Marschallin has never been a detailed impersonation such as Régine Crespin’s (and the occasion lapse of memory is only an evidence of that) and gravitates around charm, which she still has in plenty. Her figure is graceful as ever and her bearing is majestic yet feminine.
Her Octavian is in the exactly opposite situation – Claudia Mahnke is at her absolute vocal prime. Her mezzo soprano is always fully, evenly and healthily produced, she floats mezza voce at will and has no problem with both ends of her range. She is indeed an exceptional singer and would be the best Octavian I have seen in the recent years if she had the physique du rôle. Alas, she has not – although the voice suggests boyishness in its impetuosity, she was not made for trouser roles at all. But you should keep her name. At first, Jutta Böhnert’s clear but not twittery soprano seems right for the role of Sophie. However, the tessitura finally proves to be high for her and her high mezza voce lacks some freedom. That said, she is a stylish singer with very clear diction and knows how to behave girlishly without seeming silly. Finally, Bjarni Thor Kristinsson has everything a great Ochs should have – a spacious, firm, dark bass with solid low notes, a most natural delivery of the text and he is really really funny. He tends to overdo it, though, and needed some guidance to fine his performance from a very interesting to a fully satisfying one.
The Gürzenich-Orchester Köln is not exactly a world-class ensemble – the brass section can be messy and the strings lack a distinctive sound – but conductor Patrik Ringborg lead it to produce a very clean and perfectly balanced performance, the structural transparency of it indeed admirable. However, there was very little soul inside the flesh – many theatrical effects in the score failed to hit the mark and there was a serious lack of atmosphere in key scenes.
Günter Krämer’s 2002 production, revived by Carsten Kochan, is seriously misguided. I would use the word “ludicrous”, but I have used it for Achim Freyer’s Onegin for the Staatsoper and therefore I have to use something lighter for this one, which is only bizarre. To start it, it has bamboos all over the place. Then people move about in a rather incoherent way that does not make sense with the libretto and within the stagings’s concept itself.