The program was obviously carefully devised to allow Dame Kiri to show her voice to best advantage in its current estate; with the best will in the world, it is not what it was. The concert was of course amplified, but, at least from where I was sitting, there was no audible distortion and little reverberation. The main problems I experienced with the night overall were aspects of the choice of repertoire, and the orchestral arrangements of some of it.
The first part of the evening was taken up with performances by the West Australian Youth Jazz Orchestra, then a “vocalist” (= not classically trained singer) called Katie Noonan accompanied by “WASO String Quartet” in what were evidently her own compositions. The crowd seemed to enjoy all this but I find myself not competent to assess it.
The full orchestra arrived on stage under the baton of Brian Castles-Onion to deliver a loud rendition of the overture from Don Giovanni. An initial apparent sluggishness could perhaps be attributed to a delayed sound effect, but it was much crisper in the moderato. Castles-Onion whipped the orchestra to their feet almost before the applause had started, thus clearly indicating what a good time we were having.
Dame Kiri entered in a splendid oyster silk gown and a half, looking blonder than ever. She began by addressing the audience, with a comment on the weather, and then an appeal on behalf of the New Zealand earthquakes. Salvation Army volunteers later moved amongst the crowd gathering contributions. Then it was on with the business of singing. An opening bracket of Mozart wisely eschewed her signature roles of Countess and Donna Elvira, with “Ach ich fuhl’s” (Pamina, Die Zauberflöte), “S’altro che lagrime (Servilia, La clemenza di Tito) and “Deh veini non tardar” (Susanna, Le nozze di Figaro) being the order of the day. What was evident was that her vocal control is quite immaculate, with accuracy of pitch, excellent phrasing and clarity of diction; on the other hand, it was compromised by a large vibrato, and evidence of strain. Her communication with the audience was facilitated by an evident sense of meaning in the lyrics and expressive presentation.
Mozart was followed by that old orchestral chestnut, Verdi’s overture to La forza del destino, well played, even if the mood was somewhat disrupted by quacking ducks on a nearby pond. After this, a really gruesome item, “Inno del sole (Hymn to the sun)” from Mascagni’s Iris; a dreary piece of music featuring the WASO Chorus, not at their best in this situation (amplified and hidden behind the orchestra), the whole thing sounding bombastic and noisy. Then we had Lloyd-Webber’s “Pie Jesu” from his Requiem, with two sopranos (the second being Lisa Barrett from the WASO), chorus and orchestra. Not so well chosen for Dame Kiri at this point, and awful anyway.
“Signora ascolta” (Puccini, Turandot) was well characterized but, again, not really a good idea; Liu really needs to sound young and fresh, and the floated pianissimo did not really work. From the same pen, “Donde lieta usci” (La bohème) was the same story, and the soprano’s accuracy seemed to waver here. Completing the Puccini bracket, and part one of her recital, “O fior del giorno” from Edgar is a very lightweight offering, and was not inappropriately tossed to us as a bouquet.
After the interval, the overture from Die Fledermaus was played by WASO al fresco for the second time in three weeks, not exactly with a light touch. Dame Kiri returned to the stage in another spectacular outfit, a full length white beaded cloak affair over a form-fitting white frock. The choice of repertoire this time was three of Canteloube’s Songs of the Auvergne, perhaps the most successful part of the evening. “Baïlero” perhaps lacked the subtleties of light and shade we have come to expect, but “Lo Fiolairé” had a lightness of touch, and “Malurous qu’o uno fenno” was well-nigh perfect.
After the sumptuous settings of Canteloube’s “folk songs”, we were assaulted by Lloyd-Webber’s orchestral piece “The Jellicle Ball” from Cats; what a racket! After that, Sondheim’s “Sunday” from Sunday In the Park With George” was surely written for a small vocal ensemble, not the ~80 strong WASO Chorus; noisy and messy.
Next up, a couple of Gershwins. “Summertime” was not perhaps a good idea, highlighting Dame Kiri’s current vibrato and showing up the lack of her former vocal creaminess, and indeed at time it verged on shrill. It was a mercifully short version, followed by “By Strauss” from The Show is On, not George and Ira’s finest hour, one feels. It was stylishly presented but not really engaging.
The last listed item was “Climb Every Mountain”, with chorus singing (at times) an accompanying vocalise. This sort of thing, with a huge crashing and banging finale, is beyond criticism really. It was mawkish and saccharine and adored by the crowd.
I had predicted that the encore would be “You’ll never walk along”. No, it was Bernstein’s “Somewhere”, although it took a while for it to emerge from the huge orchestral introduction, more crashing and banging, but with a final last spoken “somewhere”. The next encore was what one imagines has some sort of origin as a traditional Maori piece, “Hine e hine”. Any possible Polynesian sonorities were crushed beneath the weight of the brass and cymbals. Then – encore number three, aha! – “You’ll never walk alone”, with chorus, rumbling bass, and so on. And to finally send us all on our way, we had “O mio babbino caro”, quite a relief it must be said, in its humble simplicity – who would have thought one would be saying that of Puccini?
Bottom line: the crowd loved every minute, a venerable icon chatting away just like the person next door (more or less), huge choir, huge orchestra, noisy arrangements; for the rest of us, a few moments of charming singing in memory of a great performer.