- Associated Press - Friday, January 18, 2013

NEW YORK (AP) - Preparing to exit the stage during the opening moments of Rossini’s “Le Comte Ory” at the Metropolitan Opera, Pretty Yende tripped on a couple of steps leading down from a wooden platform and fell on her face.

It was an inauspicious moment during a pantomime that accompanied the overture, and it came before the South African soprano had sung a single note. So it was a relief to the audience Thursday night when she reappeared a half-hour later and seemed both unhurt and unfazed.

This was Yende’s debut at the Met, an improbable occurrence in what so far has been a most improbable career. She is fond of telling how she grew up in Cape Town knowing nothing about opera until she heard the Flower Duet from Delibes’ “Lakme” play as background to a British Airways commercial on TV. Now, still in her 20s, she has already sung at Milan’s La Scala, won several vocal competitions, and has debuts scheduled from Washington, D.C., to Berlin.

The Met contract came her way only last month, when soprano Nino Machaidze dropped out of the planned revival of Rossini’s last comedy. Yende was available and willing to learn the role virtually overnight.

Based on her initial outing, it’s easy to see why this gifted and ingratiating performer is causing such a stir. Her voice has a lovely silvery sparkle to it, her manner onstage is relaxed yet commanding _ and as for looks, her first name scarcely does her justice.

Still, it may be the company did her no favors by tasking her with a debut role as difficult as that of the Countess Adele. For her singing was frustratingly inconsistent. At times she sounded brilliant, as in the cabaletta to her opening aria, where her coloratura rang out with ease and accuracy. But at other times she sounded slightly out of tune, smudged her passagework and missed the mark with her high notes _ including her very last one.

As the lecherous Count Ory, tenor Juan Diego Florez repeated the virtuoso performance he gave when the manic play-within-a-play production by Bartlett Sher was new two seasons ago. His unique combination of slightly goofy charm, deft comic timing and prodigious vocal agility made him downright irresistible.

In the role of Isolier, the Count’s page and rival for the countess’ affections, mezzo-soprano Karine Deshayes sang with full, rich tone and handled the bel canto demands nicely. Mezzo Susanne Resmark was resonant and authoritative as the countess’ companion, Ragonde. Less effective were baritone Nathan Gunn and debuting bass Nicola Ulivieri, both too light-voiced to make much impact. Conductor Maurizio Benini kept the effervescent score, filled with lovely and unexpected harmonies, moving along nicely.

There are five more performances through Feb. 5.

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