Mezzo-soprano Frederica von Stade is one of the major stars of the operatic scene for the last half of the 20th century, so the chance to hear her farewell concert here was not to be missed. She performed with Dame Kiri Te Kanawa and pianist Brian Zeger at Symphony Hall on Sunday afternoon, October 4, the inaugural offering of the 2009-2010 season of the Celebrity Series of Boston.
Most of us have a performance or two from our favorite singers that stays with us; for me, it was von Stade with Katheen Battle and Elisabeth Söderström in the third-act trio from Rosenkavalier, which I heard the Met do at the Wang back in the Dark Ages.
What a shame, then, that these two marvelous singers, who also have been close friends for 40 years, gave us a concert that was long on cutesy and short on heart-rending interpretation, which they both can do so well, even granting them the vagaries of seniority.
This reviewer is getting along in age too, enough so that the lower register of Te Kanawa’s voice was often inaudible in Row O, though she could still send out a wonderful long, high note. These were the ones that gave von Stade problems, but her gloriously human, interpretive singing held court.
The hit of the first half of the concert was the duet, “Ah, guarda, sorella,” between the two sisters, Fiordiligi and Dorabella, from Cosi fan tutte, sung just before Intermission. The plot of this opera has caused consternation since it was first performed, not only to the injured sensibilities of the Victorian era. It is patently unbelievable on the surface, but as we all know, Mozart’s music turns what could be a foolish situation into a deep, ambivalent, probing search. Their voices are such a perfect blend; von Stade seemed to bring out the best in Te Kanawa.
The Aaron Copland setting of the Emily Dickinson poem, “Why do they shut me out of Heaven?”, is often sung with humor (culminating with the line, “Do I sing too loud?”) But it seemed overdone by Te Kanawa, albeit the audience did giggle appreciatively. According to a musicologist friend, because the rest of the set of Copland’s Dickinson Songs are quite somber, the tendency by singers to treat this one as almost a farce is very strong, indeed.
Five songs from Chants d’Auvergne, by Joseph Canteloube, seemed a few too many. But the Poulenc songs, to poetry of Apollinaire and Anouilh, were wonderful. Puzzling, however, was the audience reaction to Agaron’s “Fetes galantes”; the title surely led them astray from the morbidity of the text.
Throughout the concert, the ladies had a fine accompanist in Brian Zeger.
The last of the “additional songs” was La “Vie en Rose,” sung achingly beautifully. A Grand Finale for von Stade.
A disclosure: This concert was supposed to be reviewed by one of Boston Musical Intelligencer’s stalwarts, but an errant email caused him to think his role had been canceled. The BMInt editor wishes it weren’t so, but the concert could not go by without a review by us.