Pretty Yende, Still A Natural, Still Not “There”

Review by: Robert Levine


Artistic Quality: 7

Sound Quality: 9

I feel about this much as I did about Pretty Yende’s first CD, “A Journey”. Her “journey” from a teensy town in South Africa to the stages of the world’s greatest opera houses has already been well documented, and now she is no longer to be judged by what she has overcome, or the rarity of her experiences. What remains clear is that she is a fine singer with a voice of lush loveliness and warmth, particularly in the middle. Her coloratura is better than firm–it is superb–and her divisions and scales are pretty flawless. She has energy galore and her diction in both French and Italian is excellent.

But…but. As an interpreter, as an artist who characterizes, she falls short. Granted, in a way it is harder for high coloraturas to make dramatic points than it is for other, darker voiced types, but for the most part the selections here are not just canary-fanciers’ delights. Maybe the Shadow Song from Dinorah falls into that category, and if that’s the case, Yende cannot compare with either Maria Callas (on a 1954 EMI recital) or, heavens, with Amelita Galli-Curci, both of whom shade the echo effects with eerie tone and formidable virtuosity, while Yende just sings the showy parts. Oddly, she is best in the B section, which sits in the middle of the voice; here her legato, excellent French, and tenderness pay off. The other French language selection is Juliette’s “Je veux vivre”, sung, the liner notes tell us, in the original key of G, rather than the more familiar tone lower. The effect is certainly bright, but I dare say we’ve all heard the opening riff sung with more abandon, and the very highest notes are strained.

Indeed, throughout, Yende’s tone is true, save for the D-flats, Ds, and E-flats, in which a wiry, effortful, and downright strange effect is found, and these notes are struck and quickly let go of–as if the singer knows they’re there mainly for effect and doesn’t want them analyzed. Just because you have an E-flat in your throat doesn’t mean everyone wants to hear it or that it’s any good.

Even highest notes aside, the Lucia Mad Scene, presented complete, is not a success. It is sung and not acted–one recalls other sopranos making a grand, sad meal of “Del ciel clemente”; here it comes and goes. In addition, she sings a newly composed cadenza (by conductor Giacomo Sagripianti and pianist Kamal Khan) that is simply anti-Donizettian and dreadful, though it does recall Lucia’s duet with her brother in the previous act. A good instinct, poorly executed.

And one admires, here and elsewhere, Yende’s ability to spin a long, high line, with unaduleratedly appealing tone. But then–the E-flats sound squeezed from a toothpaste tube. Following the Mad Scene, Linda di Chamounix’s “O luce di quest’anima” is sung with verve and girlish charm, but the piercing top notes are jarring.

Alaide’s final scene from Bellini’s La straniera is the highlight of the recital, perhaps because it sits lower than the others, and perhaps because there is room for exclamation, which Yende makes her own. The final section “Or sei pago, o ciel tremedo” has all the thrust and drama we hoped to find in the Lucia selection, while sacrificing none of the virtuosity. But you still wouldn’t want to hear that final high D too often. And speaking of Bellini, Amina’s final scene is quite lovely, the first part wonderfully slow and dreamy, and the “Ah! non giunge” nicely dazzling, if a bit rushed.

Judging from the Mad Scene cadenza, Giacomo Sagripianti, a name new to me, may have been the encouraging force for the interpolated high notes and occasionally too-busy embellishments (how many notes can I squeeze into this ad libitum?), which is a pity. The orchestra plays well and the supporting singers are impressive. But what to make of Yende? Maybe she’s more a Manon than Lucia? Juliette is a good fit. In a year or so, a full Straniera and maybe Pirata? But when your fans love you but are afraid of your (interpolated) high notes, is there something to learn?

Buy Now from Arkiv Music

Recording Details:

Album Title: Dreams

Arias by Gounod (Romeo et Juliette); Donizetti (Lucia di Lammermoor, Linda di Chamounix); Bellini (La straniera, La sonnambula); Meyerbeer (Dinorah)

  • Pretty Yende (soprano)
  • Orchestra Sinfonica di Milano "Giuseppe Verdi", Giacomo Sagripianti

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