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In farewell, soprano ranges from erratic to elegant

Dame Kiri Te Kanawa called her Sunday performance at Symphony Hall 'a farewell, not a goodbye.' Dame Kiri Te Kanawa called her Sunday performance at Symphony Hall "a farewell, not a goodbye."

Within opera's obsessive taxonomy - classification by role, voice type, historical epoch - surely farewell recitals rate their own category. Most combine past glories and vocally forgiving extroversions, letting a legend play to a crowd predisposed to forgive any diminished capacity. But the glories outshone the amusements at Dame Kiri Te Kanawa's valedictory stop at Symphony Hall Sunday - "a farewell," she clarified, "not a goodbye."

Dame Kiri made her international reputation in the 1970s singing Mozart, and turned to that composer to open: a curiosity, the Masonic solo cantata "Die ihr des unermesslichen Weltalls," neither unduly taxing nor compelling.

The songs of Richard Strauss, however, five of which followed, are never easy. The soprano - gorgeous in a powder-blue gown and iridescent wrap - treaded cautiously, particularly in the middle part of her range, which bordered on an incorporeal delicacy. On the top, though, the familiar gilt-edged timbre still gleamed, while Warren Jones, the superb pianist, judiciously reduced the dynamic without sacrificing tonal depth. In a near-flawless "Morgen," Jones's pearly luminescence and Dame Kiri's silken line were in magical, crystalline confluence.

The mid-range in a trio of Duparc songs often approached nasality, intermittently rounded to a burnished warmth. After the second, "Chanson triste," she apologized for erratic breathing over the song's last two pages: She feared swallowing a fly that had taken the stage. The earthy break in her statuesque self-possession foreshadowed a second-half diva's holiday.

Te Kanawa emerged after intermission in racier black couture for three Francis Poulenc diversions written in that composer's best boulevardier manner. The voice followed suit, more speech than song; her adopted insouciance for "Voyage à Paris" incongruously remained through the bittersweet "Les chemins de l'amour." The chatty tone also characterized a set in English, which found Dame Kiri impersonating her temperamental opposite, Maria Callas.

Works by Puccini and Cilea closed the program in more sober territory, but a trio of encores brought back the vampy demeanor: After Latin postcards from Ginastera and Guastavino, Richard Rodney Bennett's "Goodbye for Now," with Dame Kiri mugging through memory lapses as Jones gamely prompted her, bordered on kitsch, which would have made a curious sendoff for a singer famous for her aristocratic serenity.

Thankfully, one encore remained, Puccini's ubiquitous "O mio babbino caro" from "Gianni Schicchi." Like "Morgen," here was the Te Kanawa of old, the platinum tone, the regal aura. Perhaps it missed the point of the aria, which, after all, means to gently satirize opera's penchant for histrionics. But, fittingly, it embodied another of opera's great illusions: characters navigating the travails of life with a grace and elegance mere mortals rarely attain.

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Dame Kiri Te Kanawa, soprano

With Warren Jones, piano

Presented by Celebrity Series of Boston

At: Symphony Hall, Sunday

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