|Pretty Yende and James Baillieu onstage at Zankel Hall|
Guest review by Ellen Godfrey:
On Thursday evening the great South African coloratura soprano Pretty Yende performed an evening of vocal music at the sold out Zankel Hall. James Baillieu was the stellar pianist and accompanist. Many of us came to know Pretty Yende when she made her unexpected Metropolitan Opera debut in 2013, filling in for an ailing soprano in the little known Rossini opera, Le Comte Ory. She had only one month to learn the opera but she learned it in one week! She was a sensation and everyone in the audience (including me) knew that we were in the presence of the next great opera singer. She was only in her late twenties, but sang with maturity beyond her years. She also has a wonderful stage presence, a radiant smile, and “joie de vivre.”
After her Met debut and some other engagements, she took some time off for further study with some of the world’s great singing teachers. She has quickly risen to worldwide renown and is one of today’s most beloved opera stars. She has sung in all of the major opera houses both here and abroad and performs in concerts all around the world. We are lucky to have had her here to perform the great song repertoire of Schumann, Donizetti, Tosti, Richard Strauss and Johann Strauss Jr. Ms. Yende sang comfortably in three different languages-- German, French, and Italian. Of the three, Ms. Yende’s German seemed to be the clearest.
The program began with 7 songs by the the great German composer and pianist, Robert Schumann. He was long in love with Clara Wieck, who was the daughter of his piano teacher, Friedrich Wieck. Wieck tried to break up their relationship but the couple finally was able to marry when Clara became 21 years of age. They married in 1840, sharing artistic and personal collaboration. It was the year of the song for Schumann, as he celebrated his marriage by composing poetic love songs for his new wife. In that first year he composed 130 songs, including four song cycles!
When Pretty Yende entered the stage on Wednesday night wearing an extravagantly feathered pink gown, the audience greeted her with great applause and cheers. She sang 7 Schumann songs, four of which she had chosen. The first song she sang was “Der Nussbaum,” ("The Walnut Tree”). It speaks of the whispering movement of the walnut tree’s blossoms and branches; the maiden listens as she drifts off smiling into her dreams of love. Accompanist James Baillieu began playing very softly as Ms. Yende began to sing softly as well. The rapport between them throughout the concert was wonderful. The pianist’s playing whispered the sound of the trees rustling throughout the whole song. The minute Ms.Yende started to sing we could hear her warm, pleasing voice come through, soft at first, then louder, and then softer again. She has great control of her dynamics.
Another charming song was "Schmetterling" in which a child tries to capture a butterfly. Ms.Yende made it all seem so simple, using her hands to portray the butterfly in a fast moving song that went up to an A at the end. Mr. Baillieu easily conquered the extremely fast moving music. In “Loreley”, his playing of the waves that lure men to their death was vivid and captured the somewhat scary mood of the song. The other three Schumann songs were equally delightful and full of vocal color.
The second set of songs were by the great bel canto composer Gaetano Donizetti, who composed 70 operas in a little more than 20 years. Today only about 9 are popular. He also managed to fit in the composition of other genres of classical music including over 200 songs, chamber music, and piano music. His output is amazing, considering that he died from syphilis at the young age of 51!
Ms. Yende chose three Italian songs on the lighter side. “Il barcaiuolo” starts off as a calm ride and becomes dramatic as the boatman worries his passengers about a possible rising storm. This song gave Ms. Yende the chance to show us her great coloratura singing as the vocal line gets more dramatic. The other two songs are also charming, "La conocchia" (“The Spindle”) based on a folk tale and "Le crépuscule" (“Twilight”) a serenade with French text by Victor Hugo.
Perhaps the most interesting music of the evening, because it is so rarely heard, was Donizetti’s rewriting of Lucia di Lammermoor for a French version of the opera, Lucie de Lammermoor. It premiered in Paris in 1838, and is occasionally revived today. Donizetti re-conceived the entire opera, making Lucie a more delicate victim. “Que n’avons nous des ailes” (“If only we had wings”) is in the typical bel canto form: a slow lyric part (called a cantabile) followed by two stanzas of showy coloratura (known as a cabaletta).
Ms. Yende began quietly singing alone (a capella) until she was joined by Mr. Baillieu. The cabaletta requires bravura singing as Ms. Yende went higher and higher, displaying the liquid quality of her voice and moving easily among the very high notes. Her singing was accurate and remarkably flexible The second verse of the cabaletta was even more ornamented.
After intermission, Ms. Yende returned with a stunning gown, very bright and shining, almost to the point of requiring sun glasses on the part of the audience! In the third set we heard songs by the popular and beloved Italian composer Paolo Tosti. He was a lyric tenor who had distinguished himself as a vocal teacher in London from 1882 to 1912. He was also a favorite of Queen Victoria and taught her children how to sing. He was knighted by Edward II in 1908. Many of his songs are still very popular today.
The tone of the Tosti songs is brighter and happier than those of some of the songs earlier on the program. “Aprile" is an enchanting song performed very tenderly by Ms. Yende, happily welcoming spring and the season of love. ”It’s April” is sung three times, each time sung differently. Mr. Baillieu played the arpeggi with great dexterity.
The Tosti songs were followed by lieder of Richard Strauss who is probably best known for his 15 operas; but he also composed over 300 lieder. He began to compose songs for the soprano Pauline de Anna whom he married in 1894. For more than a decade they performed together in concerts. Strauss loved the soprano voice and he considered her to be the best interpreter of his songs.
“ Zueignung” (dedication), which became one of his most popular songs, was his first performed lied and his favorite. I have to say that it is my favorite Strauss song as well. Ms. Yende sang it with all the lyricism and passionate outpouring required for this song. Again Mr. Baillieu followed her singing with the same feelings. “Cäcilie”, which was composed by Strauss on the eve of his wedding, is one of the most passionate songs ever written. With huge arpeggi on the piano brilliantly played by Mr. Baillieu and Ms. Yende’s soaring, expressive voice, it made for a wonderful ending to this group of six songs.
Ms. Yende smartly ended the concert with a work by another Strauss who was not related to Richard. Johann Strauss Jr., the King of Operetta, composed in the late 19th and early 20th century. In the second act of Die Fledermaus, Eisenstein’s wife, Rosalinde, gets back at her wandering spouse by disguising herself as a Hungarian countess. Ms. Yende sang the Csardas with Hungarian style, singing the first part slowly and ending with a flourish, showing her great acting and sense of comedy.
The audience cheered and yelled for the two performers and eventually were awarded with some encores. The first was the Neapolitan song “A Vucchella”, a Neapolitan sounding song with lyrics by Gabriele D’Annunzio. Although Tosti was from the Abruzzo area of Italy, he wanted to prove that he could write in the Neapolitan dialect. The song has always been very popular and was sung with charm and humor by the artists.
Throughout the whole concert Ms. Yende had a music stand with her music in front of her. She was often looking at the music more then communicating with the audience. It wasn’t until the last encore, “Una Voce Poco Fa” from Rossini's Il barbiere di Siviglia, that she finally freed herself from the music stand and moved around the stage, flashing her wonderful smile and her impeccable singing. We finally saw the real Pretty Yende, joyous, free from any restraints, and communicating with the audience.
© meche kroop