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  1. 2015.04.09 Porgi, amor, qualche ristoro

Porgi, amor, qualche ristoro

Composition of the Day 2015.04.09 09:00

Forty years ago, when Colin Davis took over the music directorship of the Royal Opera, a new production of Mozart's Le nozze di Figaro was decreed as its inaugural gesture. Opening on 1 December 1971, the production was a prestigious and high-profile occasion. Davis was conducting, the director was John Copley, and Stefanos Lazaridis was responsible for the designs. The cast included established stars like Geraint Evans and Reri Grist, as well as a relative newcomer, the twenty-seven-year-old New Zealand soprano Kiri Te Kanawa, in the crucial role of the Countess.

Another major New Zealand artist, the bass-baritone Donald McIntyre, attended the first night on the recommendation of a third, conductor John Matheson, who had the benefit of inside knowledge. "You mustn't miss this," Matheson told him. McIntyre didn't, and was duly impressed. "I remember [Te Kanawa] singing the first aria and knocking the place flat. Then she sang the second aria and knocked the place flat again." For both Te Kanawa and Covent Garden the evening was a tremendous success. William Mann in The Times wrote that the soprano "looks and moves like a teenage goddess." Another experienced vocal expert, Desmond Shawe-Taylor, later spoke of her "stream of pure radiant ample tone, which remained ringing and assured." But the encomium that best summed up her contribution to the production as a whole came from the distinguished Andrew Porter in the Financial Times: "The new star is Kiri Te Kanawa. For years we have been praising this young New Zealand soprano... yet the promise of her performances had hardly prepared us for... well, frankly for such a Countess Almaviva as I have never heard before, not at Covent Garden, nor in Salzburg or Vienna, at once young, full-throated, a singer of great accomplishment and vivid character." It is no exaggeration to say that just as Te Kanawa made the reputation of this new Figaro production, her performance in this high-profile setting effectively made her.

Yet Kiri Te Kanawa was note quite a new singer to Covent Garden, nor to the Countess. Born in 1944 in Gisborne, New Zealand, she had her first vocal training in Auckland and established a prominent local career, mainly in light and popular music, before moving to the London Opera Centre to advance her skills. When Davis heard her audition for Covent Garden in 1969, he couldn't believe his ears. "I've taken thousands of auditions but it was such a fantastically beautiful voice that I said, 'Let's hear her again and see if we're not dreaming.'"

Te Kanawa's first Covent Garden appearance was as a Flower Maiden in Parsifal in April 1971, followed up by small roles in Boris Godunov and Aida. But the Countess was both the turning point and the marker for the future. Her warm lyric soprano, flawlessly balanced and radiant from centre to surface, suited many of Mozart's roles perfectly, and she eventually performed several of them widely and to huge acclaim from audiences and critics. Her debuts in North America (at Santa Fe, which actually preceded her Covent Garden accolade by a few months), France (Lyon), San Francisco and Glyndebourne all came courtesy of her exceptional Countess. Later at Covent Garden she would add Donna Elvira in Don Giovanni (1973), Fiordiligi in Così fan tutte (1976) and Pamina in Die Zauberflöte (1980) - roles that she sang regularly in the world's great opera houses, bringing to them special and indeed unique qualities. Her Elvira would also be one of the chief assets of Joseph Losey's admired 1979 film version of Don Giovanni. Prior to her Covent Garden career, she had sung Idamante in Idomeneo. On disc, she added the role of Mlle Siberklang in the one-act comedy Der Schauspieldirektor under Sir John Pritchard and a wide selection of Mozart's concert arias, many of them notoriously difficult - both for Decca.

Though she would enjoy equal success in other Mozart roles, in several by Strauss (including another Countess in Capriccio) and a number by Verdi, none outshone the excellence of her Countess, which was greeted with huge acclaim in major operatic centres. (She also recorded it for Jean-Pierre Poennelle's 1975-76 film of the opera, conducted by Karl Böhm.) At the Metropolitan Opera, where she first appeared in the Günther Rennert production in 1976, the New York Post headline described her as a "Countess of Beauty, a Joy Forever"; she returned to sing it in Ponnelle's staging at the theatre in 1991-92 (alongside Samuel Ramey and Frederica von Stade) and in 1997. Her Salzburg appearances in the role in 1979, one of them conducted by Herbert von Karajan, were another highlight.

 - George Hall

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