“When she sings, you think she sings for you,” La Scala’s casting manager once said of rising opera star Pretty Yende. The full house at Artscape certainly thought so as we clung to each euphonious note of Yende’s ‘Regnava nel silenzio’. Our applause roared on for a good minute or so after the aria’s close; never mind that it was only Act I, Scene 2.
To say the crowd was excited would be a gross understatement. With the wriggling anticipation of an eager child, Cape Town was ready to welcome back its champion soprano – this time with several La Scala performances, multiple top prizes at international competitions, and a recent Metropolitan Opera debut under her belt which had the New York press fawning with praise. Accompanying her for the night’s performance was a stalwart cast including tenor Colin Lee, baritone George Stevens (recently acclaimed for his portrayal of Jago in Otello) and bass Xolela Sixaba (another massively popular singer since his phenomenal performance in the lead role of Porgy and Bess). This all star cast was under the baton of none other than Maestro Richard Bonynge. If there ever was an expert on Lucia di Lammermoor, it would have to be Bonynge, the husband of the late Dame Joan Sutherland whose Lucia performances rang in the bel canto renaissance from the 1950s to the 1980s …
What evoked the standing ovation at the end of Act II, however, was Pretty Yende’s radiant coloratura which soared over the fifty or so other singers on the stage. Hers is not a flashy, flighty voice but a ripe and steady one that belies her tender age of 27 … the dulcet glow of her voice and her bravura in particular are traits even the prima donna did not come into until middle age. There was no smudging in Yende’s trills, mordents, and arpeggios; her crisp, nimble runs could send Mariah Carey home weeping. Pairing technical skill with dramatic undertones that evoked Maria Callas – especially in the middle range – Yende delivered a seamless bel canto sound, at once delicate and focused.
Most remarkable was the ease with which she produces those lovely notes. When she reached the famously challenging “mad scene”, she did not attack the high notes; rather, she made it seem like plucking fruit from a tree that was within easy reach. The true test of this came in the soprano and flute duet cadenza … Yende triumphed in this battle of agility, range, and sonority between human voice and instrument.
From the first shaping of the orchestra’s sound in Maestro Bonynge’s hands to the unrestrained “bravos” at the end as we rose to our feet, the tight cast of talents carried us through a concert that will not easily be forgotten. It was a landmark moment for the Cape Philharmonic Orchestra and the historic first of what will likely be many acclaimed Lucia performances on Yende’s part. Pretty Yende sang for Cape Town tonight, but she is not to be kept all to ourselves. The whole world awaits her.
-What’s on in Cape Town
This was a performance which created a wave of gratitude for the wealth of artistry that has been engendered in our lovely city: a performance to savour and to add to the memory banks storing our richest experiences … we were treated to an immaculate concert reading of Donizetti’s masterpiece, performed by a homegrown cast and our own symphony orchestra. Homegrown they might be; but Pretty Yende, Colin Lee and George Stevens have all become international artists, living abroad and performing in the leading opera houses of Europe, the UK and North America.
Yende is long since a big name in Cape Town. I have had the privilege of both working with and reviewing her over the course of almost a decade and she has simply grown in stature with each encounter.
There hardly seems any point in enthusing about the quality of a voice that is already so commented on, discussed and admired. It is an extraordinary instrument, of wonderful reliability throughout Yende’s considerable range and possessing a captivating mellow quality that gives even the most forceful utterances a nuanced tonal beauty.
But what really impressed in Yende’s debut in this taxing role was her exemplary breath control. No, more than exemplary: for she governs her considerable lung capacity with a rigorous diaphragmatic control that ensures a seemingly endless and perfectly stable vocal projection. To this she adds the myriad technical vocal inflexions that create a Lucia of overwhelming musical impact. On this showing, Yende is going to be one of the great Lucias of the next two decades.