Tuesday night marked the somewhat long overdue debut of bel canto royalty Juan Diego Flórez and rising star Pretty Yende at the Amsterdam Concertgebouw. The programme consisted mainly of arias and duets by Bellini and Donizetti, with a French interlude (Offenbach, Gounod and Massenet). Opera enthusiasts can sometimes get frustrated by this kind of opera gala nights, because of the lengthy orchestral fillers often programmed between arias and duets. This certainly wasn’t the case here: during almost three hours, Juan Diego Flórez and Pretty Yende, alone or in duet, repeatedly descended and ascended the infamous red-carpeted stairs that lead to the great hall’s stage – a particularly perilous-looking exercise for Ms Yende in her lovely fuchsia gown.

Pretty Yende © Zemsky Green
Pretty Yende
© Zemsky Green

Warmed up after the rousing tunes of the sinfonia at the beginning of the programme, the Gelders Orkest started a tad too loud on the duet from Linda di Chamounix, but conductor Christopher Franklin quickly adjusted and, under his baton, the orchestra gave a commendable and very enjoyable performance throughout the evening.

I suspect that many in the audience would have bought their ticket to hear Juan Diego Flórez alone. Although she has won prestigious prizes in the past 5 years and made a very successful Met debut in 2013, Pretty Yende is not yet a household name. However, from the instant she started singing, the young South-African soprano had the public around her finger. How not to fall under her charm? Ms Yende is a most endearing and generous performer. She takes risks and, at the beginning of the concert, those risks seemed to unveil slight intonation problems a few times, but this might just have been a bit of understandable stage fright. Although she sang it with beautiful aplomb, I found her Manon the least successful part of her performance, perhaps because the vain character does not naturally fits her temperament, but mainly because in the French language, her tendency not to pronounce consonants clearly becomes the most evident.

But this is nit-picking and weighs little against the sheer joy of listening to such a beautiful voice: a silky soprano with shimmering colours, luminous high notes and a rich bottom, superbly suited to bel canto music. The Donizetti heroines were lovely and, especially as Adina in the L'elisir d’amore duet with Mr Flórez’s Nemorino, she demonstrated she acts the comedy well too. But it is her Bellini arias I loved the most, because they showcased the voice, with its rich colours and admirable legato, best. Amina’s aria from La sonnambula “Ah! Non credea mirarti”, which she sang after a dreamy recitative, was particularly delightful. Her singing as much as her obvious joy of performing on stage unleashed loud enthusiasm from the public and, without waiting for the concert to end, a fan approached the stage to offer her a bunch of flower between two numbers.

Juan Diego Flórez © Josef Gallauer | Decca
Juan Diego Flórez
© Josef Gallauer | Decca
Mr Flórez' performance was just as superb, with the added confidence that comes with experience. I found his timbre exquisite, well matched with that of his partner, and without that nasal quality that one might sometimes hear in recordings. He has such unbelievable mastery of his technique that he makes everything sound – and look – easy and effortless. Simply jaw-dropping! Don’t ask me to choose: I could not say if I preferred his morbid Edgardo, his radiant Roméo or his Nemorino. His interpretation of “Una furtiva lagrima” was perfection.

There are concerts that finish on an obligatory “O mio babbino caro” or other predictable encores. But Mr Flórez and Ms Yende are far too generous performers for this and their encores had the taste of a grand finale. A real festive finish, with a duet from La bohème, preceeded by two excerpts from Donizetti’s La fille du régiment: Marie’s fiery “Salut à la France!” from Ms Yende and Tonio’s brilliant cabaletta “Pour mon âme”, sung by Mr Flórez with nine glorious high Cs. The volume of thunderous of applause that greeted each of their numbers certainly more than compensated for any empty seats.