Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Yvonne Kenny: A Touch of Venus

Yvonne Kenny: A Touch of Venus. For Musica Viva. Yvonne Kenny, soprano. Iain Burnside, piano. Hamer Hall, The Arts Centre, Melbourne. Also QPAC Concert Hall, Brisbane, tonight, and Llewellyn Hall, Canberra, Friday.


I would sacrifice my first-born to avoid seeing -- or rather hearing -- Kiri Te Kanawa feeling pretty. Or Sumi Jo glittering and being gay. Opera singers shouldn’t slum it. Show tunes and divas don’t mix. Period. No exceptions. So it was with a touch of trepidation that I lined up some tickets to see a variety show program featuring superstar Australian soprano Yvonne Kenny.

Now, I’m a Kenny groupie. I have five of her CDs, one signed and dedicated. But I don’t really want to hear her singing anything more recent than Puccini’s beloved daddy... unless it’s a Britten or a Canteloube or a Copland arrangement of a traditional song.

And this program -- more or less the same as the one she performed at Wigmore Hall in May -- had Weill, Sondheim, Coward, Gershwin, Cole Porter, Jerome Kern, Rich Rodgers. Even one of William Bolcom’s Cabaret Songs. And the 20th century “mod squad” composers far outnumbered the Schumann, Handel and Purcell.

But Yvonne Kenny, above all else, is an artist of intelligence and taste. And the choices she made in this program -- with just one or two jarring exceptions -- suited her laser-bright voice, her acting skills and that knowing, severe, beautiful brow of hers.

(Yvonne Kenny, photograph by Paul Henderson-Kelly)

The emphasis throughout the night was on poetry: a Purcell setting of some Dryden, a Frank Bridge setting of some Matthew Arnold, Kurt Weill of Ogden Nash and so on. And Kenny’s voice -- accompanied only by the Steinway -- gave those verses wings.

She tossed a tassled, tequila sunrise-coloured shawl over her shoulders and sang “no stain shall blemish this constant heart” as if she were daring fate to seduce her. Iain Burnside’s piano trills, here, were precise, delicate, brilliant. Seductive.

Then Kenny trumped it with an exquisite rendition of Jerome Kern’s ‘All the things you are’... clear, soft and emotional.

Linking the songs were extracts from an old book of etiquette and some wry little quotations about boorish men and inconstant love from Dorothy Parker, Ivana Trump, Zsa Zsa Gabor... you can see where this is heading, right?

The best and the worst came in the encores. Brilliantly, Kenny led with Tom Lehrer’s ‘Masochism Tango’. And this, I’ve got to say, was the highlight of the night: dramatic, fun, black. As unexpected and shocking as a cigarette burn in a ball gown.

But from black coal we went to glass-cutting diamonds... of the “girl’s best friend” variety. At the final hurdle, we stumbled. Talk about ending on a brittle note.

Sandwiched between the Lehrer and the Leo Robin/Jule Styne tune from Gentlemen Prefer Blondes was a pretty little song by Reynaldo Hahn: ‘Si mes vers avaien des ailes’ (If my verses had wings). In this company, alas, it was invisible. Too sweet and too frail.

3MBS FM recorded this concert for delayed broadcast.

An edited version of this review appeared in the Herald Sun, last week.

See also Sarah Noble’s passionate review of the same concert, here.

She writes, in part:
This is an incredible programme, so full of Yvonne, of what she does so beautifully and whats so beautiful about her — and also eerily full of me. Music I learnt from her and have only ever heard her sing; music Ive known for years and have never heard her sing, but now it too belongs to her. I could catalogue at length the universe of resonances and associations and delights at work for me in this programme but perhaps Ill just select a few.
And ends her review thus:
In my life Ive encountered few people so extraordinary. Her grace, her passion and her generosity inspire and uplift me always. She floors me, and I adore her.

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Anonymous babbino caro said...

Ta for your great review. You had forgotten or maybe you didn’t know that the greatest musical disaster of all time was Sutherland attempting to sing the 1920’s song ‘If I had a talking picture of you’ a much loved favourite of the music hall singers of that era and indeed popular even today; to refresh your memory, bring it up on Google and you can actually hear it played with vocal accompaniment, not by Joan thank God: Shut your eyes and imagine the great dame singing it --- t’was a fuckin disaster. Fortunately I can only remember it being played once and I think she lost more groupies over that song than any occasion in her long and illustrious career.

As far as Sumi Jo is concerned --- she could sing ‘Three Blind Mice’ and I’d still love her.

5:00 PM  
Anonymous Sarah said...

Always a pleasure to see somebody else blogging about Yvonne. Can't agree with on "Diamonds Are A Girl's Best Friend", which I loved; but the Masochism Tango was brilliant indeed. As was the rest. *What* a gorgeous show.

7:46 PM  
Anonymous Margaret said...

We didn't get the third encore in Perth, so could just float off with the Hahn.. gorgeous, with those beautifully floated high notes which she does so well. The whole thing was an amazing performace, when you consider the constant shifts in style and voice. Thanks for the review.

1:53 PM  
Blogger Chris Boyd said...

Some singers (like Pavarotti and... er... Celine Dion!) should be heard but not seen. Yvonne Kenny, undoubtedly, is not one of those!

Babbino, I can still see "the great dame" playing daughter of the regiment and looking like its great aunt. Ugh.

I'm undecided about Miss Jo. Her Lucia (at the Opera House, such wonderful impertinence!) rocked my world. But, years earlier, in recital in Melbourne, she was terribly disappointing. The higher the note, the weaker her voice got.

Thanks, all, for your comments. I have to point out that Sarah -- who flew from New Zealand to see YK -- makes my use of the word 'groupie' seem pathetically inappropriate.

She also reminds me that you would be hard pressed to find a more consistent or diligent perfomer -- at this stellar level -- than Yvonne Kenny. Bless her.

3:12 AM  

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