“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.
No one would believe the conductor to be an octogenarian, the way he commanded orchestra and audience alike in the opening notes of the Preludio. Requiring no visual embellishment, the mournful, ominous tone of the Cape Philharmonic’s horns set the stage for the dramatic narrative about to unfold. Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor unveils the misfortunes of delicate Lucia who, torn in the enmity between her manipulative brother Enrico and her lover Edgardo, goes mad upon being tricked into marriage with another. Like all good tragedies the tale ends with the death of the luckless lovers.
Luckily for us, tragedy in the hands of Donizetti’s melodic gifting produces some hauntingly magnificent tunes. Lucia and Edgardo’s love duet featured lilting legatos and off-the-script runs sung in sweet harmony, with Yende and Lee drawing out with their voices what they regrettably lacked in chemistry. In the famous sextet, the singers, including the Voice of the Nation chorus in the background, worked as one to weave the well-known melody into a rich, layered sound.
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. She may not possess the superb control of Joan Sutherland, but 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. Although there were a few wobbly lines, 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.
by Esther Lim
The Cape Philharmonic Orchestra’s production of Lucia di Lammermoor runs at the Artscape Opera House 18 & 20 November 2013.