A young South African soprano Pretty Yende made a New York recital debut at Carnegie Hall’s intimate Weill Recital Hall with a diverse and ambitious program. While she was in her element with Italian and operatic repertoire, her singing in French gave an impression that she is still a work in progress, albeit an excellent and promising one.

The recital began with four non-opera songs by the three giants of bel canto, Rossini, Bellini and Donizetti, all of them about love. From the beginning, Ms Yende’s voice was fully warmed up and her passage work was exemplary. Dressed in a rich maroon-colored gown, she displayed a strong command of the Italian language, and her high notes were produced effortlessly. Her coloratura was natural, accurate and delightful. The third selection, Donizetti’s “L’amor funesto (Sad Love)”, was especially affecting as she brought powerful emotion to the song of love and death.

The five early songs by Debussy that followed were less successful, as her French diction was not always clear and her middle voice, full and heavy with vibrato, seems not quite suited to negotiate Debussy’s dreamlike music. It is admirable that Ms Yende took a risk in selecting a set of French songs that may not come naturally to her at this stage in her career.

She ended the first half of the program with Meyerbeer’s “O beau pays de la Touraine (O beautiful country of Touraine) from Les Huguenots, which brought her back to a more comfortable operatic territory, and one must admire again her ability to produce dramatic high notes with seeming ease and beauty. 

After the intermission, Ms Yende reappeared in a black gown with silverly white shawl-like piece around her shoulder and beautiful jewellery. The three Petrarch Sonnets by Liszt were quite successful, with Ms Yende setting her voice elegantly to the melody while her high notes were now free from any earlier tension. While the program notes state that Liszt experimented with innovative harmonies and pianistic effects in his earlier songs, Ms Yende’s command of Liszt’s music was such that one almost wishes that Liszt had written an opera for a coloratura soprano such as Ms Yende. The ending of the third piece, “Benedetto sia’l giorno” (Blessed be the Day) and the beginning of the next piece, “I’vidi in terra angelica costume” (I beheld on earth angelic grace), were especially notable for her exquisite phrasing.

Ms Yende showed her versatility with the next three selections, zarzuela pieces by Jeronimo Gimenez. Two songs from The Headstrong Girl, with snappy rhythm and play on words, with occasional shout of “Ay!” were executed with great energy and pizzazz. Ms Yende had been somewhat subdued dramatically during the earlier part of the recital, but with the lively Spanish songs a more lively side of her personality came through.

The program ended with an exquisite if not completely flawless rendition of Bellini’s last soprano aria from “La sonnambula”. Again, while her high notes and her coloratura singing were breathtaking, her middle voice and breathing sometimes seemed a bit labored and awkward. One of the three encore pieces featured a South African celebratory song (sung without piano accompaniment) makes it clear that her heritage and tradition favors clean and straightforward use of beautify high notes, which is what Ms Yende possesses in abundance. She also seems to be a charming and elegant person, willing to experiment and learn. One hopes that she will continue to develop a distinct voice as an artist and thrill the audience with her gift. 

Kamal Khan at the piano was a lively and supportive collaborator to Ms Yende, even though the notes sometimes got away from him. He even echoed her singing of the last encore piece, a "Prima Donna" aria.