Pretty Yende has a morning-after debut

Pretty Yende has a morning-after debut


norman lebrecht

April 03, 2022

The South African soprano made her Violetta debut at Covent Garden at 11.30 yesterday morning.

And it came after one of the most extraordinary nights of Peter Grimes ever seen on a world stage.

Hugh Kerr was there for Slipped Disc. He writes:

From the sublime to the second rate?

This was my feeling after the morning (11.30 am !) launch of the latest cast change of Covent Garden’s La Traviata on April 2. This crowd pleaser is being put on no less than 27 times this season with 6 casts. The Royal Opera has become a Traviata house, or as some might think a travesty house of what an opera company ought to be.

There was a pretty full house on Saturday morning ,many of them excited to be there for the first time and thinking it was “wonderful”. For the more experienced, it was a disappointment after the sublime Peter Grimes of Thursday night which I reviewed for Slipped Disc and the Edinburgh Music Review we got a second rate Traviata with a second or third string cast. An experienced opera goer sitting next to me never reappeared after the first act! I was tempted to do the same but was restrained by my need to review it.

There is nothing wrong with Richard Eyre’s 1996 production but surely a leading opera house ought to innovate. With the cast changes for Traviata come conductor changes. The latest was Giacomo Sagripanti a young Italian who has won awards but seemed intent on making this the slowest Traviata on record. His overture pace was funereal and Traviata limped rather than leapt into the action of the opening party scene. Here we were introduced to Pretty Yende as Violetta and Stephen Costello as Alfredo.

Pretty Yende is the first of 3 Violettas in this 11-night run of Traviata. At 37 she is no longer a young sensation from South Africa but an established star. Yet this morning I found her first act disappointing with occasionally wobbly coloratura and less than convincing lower registers. She got better in subsequent acts but never reached the heights of classic Violettas or even more recent ones such as Ermolena Jaho who entranced me in 2019 at the Garden. Stephen Costello is also an international tenor of repute but I found him disappointing; he has a head voice somewhat nasal in delivery and didn’t convince me that he was passionately in love with Violetta in act one. I remember Pavarotti saying you should sing from your stomach ,something Costello clearly didn’t attempt. Again he got better in later acts but left me underwhelmed compared to not only the greats of the past but even more recent Alfredo’s such as Charles Castronova or Joseph Calleja .

Dimitri Platanias is now at 51 a veteran of Covent Garden performances and the Greek baritone rarely disappoints but again I found his Germont somewhat understated and compared badly with the great baritones of the past ,although he certainly was better than Placido Domingo’s attempt at the role I saw most recently. The rest of the cast were fine and the the chorus and the ballet dancers did their best to inject life into this rather limp performance.

Of course it is the curse of experienced opera goers to be disappointed when performances don’t measure up to great nights of the past. But it is also the job of the critic to be critical and for me this was the most underwhelming Traviata of the many I have seen in the past. Still it will no doubt fill the house most nights and that may be important for the economics of Covent Garden but is it enough?

Hugh Kerr editor Edinburgh Music Review



  • Alf says:

    Hey Hugh [G Wayne] Kerr, maybe you should take a swipe at management for scheduling a performance at 11:30am before aiming character assassinations of every singer on stage.

    I remember the great reviewers of old who didn’t have to name drop, attack, and tear down to give an account of a performance.

    Perhaps you should sit at home with your cassette collection and leave the seat for a paying customer.

    • Hugh Kerr says:

      Thanks Alf I was a paying customer £17 in the Upper Slips! I have been coming to Covent Garden for over 50 years and seen many Traviatas round the world and by the way it’s the job of critics to be critical and also to be there and I’m guessing you weren’t there Alf!

      • Redo says:

        Oh Huge, you don’t seem to like getting a reflexive ‘critique’/judgement.

        50 years at Covent Garden, wowzers… Perhaps it’s time to invest in a hearing aid to assist your great contribution to the operatic world.

        I remember reading reviews that describe how singers craft phrases; nuance of colour and expression.

        Your job (which I’m sure you’re not actually paid for) as a critic is to give
        a reflection on what the performance was, not a 2D judgement of worthiness.

        If you don’t like the quality you see, blame the artistic director, head of casting, head of planning. Or spend more that £17 on your tickets, if you want your Echt Heiligekunts.

        Meanwhile, stop tearing down performers with your self-agrandised scribbles and crap taste.

    • Stuart says:

      Alf, it appears to be a fair and comprehensive review. We’re you in attendance to offer a different view?

  • RW2013 says:

    Was Hugh Who attempting humor when he wrote “Viloetta??

  • V.Lind says:

    Has this guy ever heard of commas? Does he know how to make a simple plural (no apostrophes necessary)? The whole thing needs an edit.

    • sonicsinfonia says:

      Well, of course, newspaper critics have sub editors who take care of all that for them for better or (often) for worse.

  • zayin says:

    A house has got to make money. It’s not Peter Grimes that’s going to pay the bills.

    What’s the line from that recent movie?

    “You know how it works. You need a few cheeseburgers to
    pay for the sirloin. You sell enough sirloin, you get to the
    filet mignon.”

    Extra points to whoever can identify the movie ; )

    • Nik says:

      Yes, Hugh says “surely a leading opera house ought to innovate” – well it does. I’m very happy with this ROH season after seeing Jenůfa, Theodora and Peter Grimes all of which were superb. Frankly I don’t care how many Traviatas and Toscas they put on in between. Whatever pays the bills.

    • Colin says:

      King Richard?

  • Chiedu says:

    I usually skip opera “critics” these days since they rarely have any musical training or have any love of the art form, but in this case, there are too many glaring untruths. First, the claim that this was a slow Traviata – this is factually untrue. I was there, I made a bootleg and it clocks in at barely 2 hours even with no cuts, 2 verses for “Addio del passage” and the 2 minute pause in Act 2. This is actually a faster running time than most live Traviatas. Second, that a celebrated soprano singing leading roles on every world stage with a stack of recordings and DVDs is a 2nd or 3rd tier artist. Whatever your feelings, Yende is a star. Interesting that you omitted the ecstatic audience reaction to Yende: wild ovations, including applause at the end of “Amami Alfredo” – something that rarely happens anymore. Of course, you’re welcome to your opinion, but I found Yende to be in beautiful vocal shape. The voice rang through the house and was simply gorgeous, with a round, though girlish tone, and power and expression in the lower register (which surprised me). Her acting was impassioned and complex, creating a memorably tragic heroine with reserves of inner strength and wisdom. Her Act 2 scene with Pater Germont was a highlight and an achievement for both Yende and Platanias. I’ve nothing much to say of Costello. He’s a wooden actor with a pleasant voice, but as usual, did not leave a strong impression with me. I also have to comment on mentioning Yende’s age – a particularly low point (among truckloads of low points) in your review. Yende is probably the youngest Violetta in London this season. Jaho btw is nearing 50 and still singing Violetta – but who cares? They’re great artists. How old are YOU? Certainly old enough to know and do better! And lastly, I love both Traviata and Peter Grimes and have seen each – and just about every opera in repertory – many times. I never tire of seeing either.

  • Damaged Eardrums says:

    I’m afraid this is the norm in many opera houses around the world. Having heard a recent Met Saturday Matinee of “Bohéme” on the radio, it felt like the two main characters sang at a level of third-rate houses mere 20-25 years ago. After 1.5 acts, I had to turn it off. The orchestra sounded perfect, having a warhorse on their stands, with very good conducting. The singing really is not where things were. First-rate singers of today were of 2nd or 3rd tier singers, even of recent past.

    • Anthony says:

      As an old-time Met attender once said about many modern-day singers: the only way they could get into the Met in the 1950’s and 60’s was to buy a ticket.

  • La plus belle voix says:

    Pretty poor prose. A real hack at work. Syntactically dominated by the “this was this” and “that was that” kind of predicates couched in short, simple declarative sentences. As unimaginative as the production.

    • Valerie Baker says:

      Sometimes being imaginative ruins a production. I saw the Met make a mess of this Traviata by using a bare stage apart from an over large clock and a sofa. Violetta was played by Natalie Dessay who really did struggle throughout the whole thing.She was a big house favourite then.
      Ive seen this London production several times, it’s hasn’t changed that much since the early Nineties, its well loved, continues to attracts large crowds and brings home the bacon.
      They innovate with other productions but retain old favourites.

  • Joel Kemelhor says:

    The most important observation in Mr. Kerr’s review is: “There was a pretty full house on Saturday morning, many of them excited to be there for the first time….”

  • Tully Potter says:

    I would gently suggest that if Hugh Kerr goes to a morning opera performance, he deserves all he gets. Last night (Tuesday), La traviata bore very little resemblance to what he describes. To start with the conductor, Sagripanti’s tempi did not seem slow to me, in fact one or two were faster than I would have preferred. I don’t know what ‘overture’ was played on Saturday, but the ACT 1 Prelude was very well shaped, at a very acceptable tempo. Pretty Yende had quite a triumph last night. There is an honourable tradition of Violettas who manage to get through Act 1 but flower in the further acts (I could name Caniglia, Guerrini and Tebaldi off the top of my head) and this is Yende’s category. I found her portrayal very touching. I agree that Costello is a so-so tenor (his tuning was suspect, especially in Act 1) but I simply cannot understand the criticism of Platanias, a first-rate Verdi baritone. Covent Garden is obviously skint and needing to sell lots of seats, hence the host of Traviatas, and if ‘innovation’ means the sort of hide-bound thinking that gave us an updated Grimes (an opera that reeks of Victorian times, with ‘laudanum’, the workhouse, boy apprentices etc.) I am not with Mr Kerr. Sorry to tangle with a fellow Scot, but that’s how it is…