Strausses shine brightly in Yende’s second-half tour de force

Thu Dec 05, 2019 at 2:30 pm
Soprano Pretty Yende performed a recital with pianist James Baillieu Wednesday night at Zankel Hall. Photo: Kim Fox

In the last several years, few sopranos have risen as quickly as Pretty Yende. Coming into her own as a bel canto superstar, the South African soprano has anchored a number of revivals at the Metropolitan Opera, and the company has invested energy in helping to build her public image as a marquee talent. It was a bit of a surprise, then, that her Carnegie Hall recital on Wednesday night was presented downstairs in the smaller Zankel Hall, and not up in the main auditorium.

It’s only fair to note at the start that throughout a long first set, Yende had to contend with the shrill cry of an angry hearing aid. She did not appear visibly bothered by the noise, but it was loud enough that at the first break, a listener in the front row turned around and made an impassioned plea for the rest of the audience to check their devices.

With that caveat, the first half of Wednesday’s recital did not show Yende at her best. Zankel’s cold acoustic can be hard on sopranos to begin with, and there was a sense in Wednesday’s recital that Yende was trying to rein in her powerful instrument so as not to overwhelm the 600-seat hall.

She had trouble controlling her tone as a result, though in the Schumann set that opened the program she made up for it with exquisite shaping. Yende couldn’t find much warmth in “Der Nussbaum,” but the bright, cheery “Schmetterling” was right in her wheelhouse, flattering the lemony tone and lively energy of her soprano. In “Waldesgespräch” she found two distinct voices, giving Lorelei a dark warmth to contrast with the sharper declamation of the rider. 

A series of works by Donizetti were, surprisingly, more of a struggle. “Il barcaiuolo,” the first of three selections from Nuits d’été à Pausilippe, was stylistically dry and her pitch drifted substantially flat. “Que n’avons-nous des ailes,” an aria from the revised French version of Lucie de Lammermoor, was competent overall but did not feel so effortless as Yende usually does in bel canto rep.

Coming out of the intermission (in a shimmering gold-and-purple dress that earned a second round of applause), Yende found her vocal control again, and was brilliant in the remainder of the program. Three songs by Paolo Tosti combined Italian passion with tasteful restraint, graceful yet vivid. Especially impressive was “Malìa,” an enchanting troubadour song delivered in lively phrases, at once elegant and seductive.

In her Richard Strauss set, Yende proved she has all the maturity subtle artistry to succeed in lieder repertoire: her “Zueignung” presented a perfect distillation of heroic love, with confident, firm diction and warm, radiant tone. “Cäcilie,” the last of the set, was magnificent, with a driving excitement in her middle voice, and shining gold at the top.

Yende’s partner for this recital, fellow South African James Baillieu, was extraordinary, showing all the makings of an exceptional vocal accompanist: his vivid playing never upstaged his partner, and he followed her beautifully, his choices responding to hers in real time. 

Baillieu brought a gorgeous variety of tone and natural freedom in his phrasing: he offered a gossamer touch in “Der Nussbaum,” dreaming sighs in Donizetti’s “Le crépuscule,” and rippling breezes in Tosti’s “Aprile.” In Strauss’s “Zueignung” he played with concerto-like virtuosity, contrasting with the airy glitter of “Ständchen.” If Wednesday was indicative of his usual playing, Baillieu might become one of the few pianists to achieve real fame as a vocal accompanist.

The scheduled program ended with a piece tailor-made for Yende’s voice: Rosalinde’s Csárdás from Die Fledermaus. Her tone showed a rich, burning warmth, and her comic instincts stood out in the mock melancholy of the slow verse. Then, singing at full power, she luxuriated in the characteristic burning gold of her voice, bringing bright sound and irresistible, playful energy to the delirious whirl of the dance.

A set of three encores began with sun-kissed warmth and melting, rich tone in Tosti’s “A Vucchella” and ended in the tender coos of “Thula Baba,” a traditional South African lullaby.

The second encore was “Una voce poco fa,” Rosina’s big aria and cabaletta from Il barbiere di Siviglia. Here Yende showed laser focus in her voice, astonishing coloratura, pitch-perfect intonation, and complete stylistic ease. It was especially interesting to think back to her performance of the same aria at the Metropolitan Opera a couple of years ago, for comparison. This time around, she reined in some of her ornamentation, without losing any excitement in her interpretation. But even her more adventurous or unorthodox choices were carried off with an effortless grace that has come with experience. 

Even after a slow start, this recital proved to be a tour de force for a young soprano whose arc is still ascending. Next time she sings at Carnegie, they’d better book the big hall.

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