Dreaming with Pretty Yende

At age 16, South African soprano Pretty Yende (b. 1985) encountered the now legendary British Airways TV commercial whose soundtrack included the gorgeous "Flower Duet" from Délibes's Lakmé. Astounded, she immediately went to her high school teacher in the small town of Piet Retief, about 200 miles from Johannesburg, to ask what kind of music she had heard. When she learned that it was opera, she knew almost immediately that she wanted to be an opera singer.

As in fairy tales come true, eight years later, Yende entered the young artists' program at the house where Maria Callas reigned, La Scala, Milan. Two years after, in 2011, she won first prize in Plácido Domingo's Operalia Competition. Now, at age 32, Metropolitan Opera star Yende has released her second solo album for Sony. Entitled Dreams, the recording is packed with well-known, high-flying soprano coloratura calling cards, including the extended Mad Scene from Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor, Juliette's "Jewel Song" from Gounod's Roméo et Juliette, the fabulous showpiece, "Ah! Tardai troppo . . . O luce di quest'anima" from Donizetti's Linda di Chamounix, the "Shadow Song" from Meyerbeer's Dinorah, and the glorious finale from Bellini's La sonnambula.

For those who know opera, this is echt Sutherland, Sills, and Callas territory, with their successors—Dessay, Damrau and Devia (amongst others)—and acoustic era predecessors—Patti, Galli-Curci, Tetrazzini, Eames, Sembrich, Boronat, etc.—bookending their estimable accomplishments. With so many recordings available for comparison, opera queens will only be able to listen to Yende's finale from Bellini's rarely-heard opera, La straniera, without having the competing voices of many of their favorite coloraturas singing along in their heads.

Several things struck me about Yende's voice and artistry right off. On the most elementary technical level, her high range, notably the area from F through high C or even C#, is simply gorgeous. In fact, she chooses the higher optional key for at least two of her arias, so that more of the music sits in her sweet spot. It's a special joy to hear her every time she sings out in this range.

Alas, Yende loses strength at the very top, on those notes that, whether written into the score or not, every high coloratura tries to hurl across the footlights—and can only hold them for two or three seconds. Her climactic high in Lucia's "Mad Scene" barely carries over the orchestra.

In addition, the lightness and beguiling combination of strength and fragility that are the sine qua non of the classic French coloratura (regardless of national origin) are not innately hers. Where Sills in her prime could delightfully bubble along in Linda's aria, Bidu Sayão could charm the jewels off Juliette's tiara, and Mady Mesplé sang with the pinpoint lightness and charm that brought to mind the French singers of an earlier era, Yende has a somewhat heavier, more dramatic tone that is more suited to Alaide's suffering in La straniera. Compare her Lucia with that of her near contemporary, Lebanese-Canadian Joyce El-Khoury, and you'll find in the latter a distinctly lighter and more fragile sound. While Yende seems more accomplished technically—she exhibits greater agility, a finer trill, more intriguing high-lying variations, and the ability to hang out near the very top of the voice with ease—El-Khoury nonetheless touches the heart in ways that Yende cannot yet achieve.

To these ears, which auditioned the music via 24/44.1 hi-rez files, Yende most successfully communicates pathos and fragility in Amina's "Ah! Non credea mirarti" from La Sonnambula. Although neither she nor conductor Giacomo Sagripanti and the Coro Sinfonico e Orchestra Sinfonica di Milano exhibit the mastery of rubato, light and shade, and dynamics that are the hallmark of true bel canto—think Callas with Serafin or Bernstein for starters—this is a beautiful assumption that many music lovers will savor over and over. Ditto for the wonderful finale from La straniera. While Yende, in the liner notes, suggests that the latter points to the repertoire she will sing as her voice gains in weight, to these ears, she already has its tragic drama in the core of her being.

A must hear? Absolutely. A valuable reference? Unquestionably. An album whose original variations and vocal glories invite repeated listening? Most certainly. A replacement for the classic live and studio mad scenes from Sutherland, Sills and Callas, or an album to play alongside Sutherland's remarkable The Art of the Prima Donna? Not really.

volvic's picture

Are you sure?

Jason Victor Serinus's picture

that I am absolutely wrong. It was Délibes. Thanks for pointing out my error.

volvic's picture

It's still a great read JVS, enjoyed it thoroughly. Many thanks.

tonykaz's picture

She's young. We saw here in Prague a couple years ago, she looks effortless, almost like she's lip-sync. but she isn't. She can reach deep into power but looks like she's just coasting along. She was sending high-voltage down my spine!, like being up-close to a String Quartet.

She's gonna make some wonderful recordings, now that digital can do 24 bits worth of dynamic range, phew.

Opera Today is why we need high powered Amps and capable speakers, more than we ever did before.

Tony in Michigan

ps. Yes, I suppose so: "echt" !