Nadine Sierra delivers a radiant recital

Soprano Nadine Sierra made her Cincinnati debut at Matinee Musicale. Bryan Wagorn at the piano.
Soprano Nadine Sierra made her Cincinnati debut in recital at Matinee Musicale. Bryan Wagorn at the piano. Photo by Gayna Bassin.

Soprano Nadine Sierra had won the hearts of everyone in the room even before she sang her encores in Sunday’s recital for Cincinnati’s Matinée Musicale.  Then she gave such a ravishing account of Puccini’s “O mio babbino caro,” that no one in the audience dared to breathe.

How lucky that Matinee Musicale, Cincinnati’s distinguished, 103-year-old daytime music series, was able to book Sierra, a stunning singer who seems poised on the brink of a major career. The 27-year-old made her Metropolitan Opera debut this year as Gilda in “Rigoletto.” Perhaps it’s no surprise to learn that she was the youngest ever to win the grand finals of both the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions and the Marilyn Horne Competition.

So there was great anticipation for her recital, which she performed with an accomplished pianist Bryan Wagorn, who is an assistant conductor to James Levine at the Met, in the radiant surroundings of the Westwood First Presbyterian Church.

Her varied program featured German, French and Spanish repertoire in the first half. After a short break, the artists returned with lighter fare, including a charming set of songs from “Kismet” and Ricky Ian Gordon’s wonderful setting of Emily Dickinson’s “Will There Really be a Morning?”

It’s too bad that program notes and translations were not provided, which would have helped listeners immensely. But she had a vibrant presence, and communicated with vivid expression.

The soprano displayed a voice of sumptuous beauty in two lieder by Schubert: Lied der Florino and Lied der Delphine. The latter, from 1825, is about the pain and joy of young love, climaxing on a high C. Sierra’s phrases were both exuberant and brilliant, and every word was colored with meaning.

My favorite of the first set was Mozart’s “Ruhe sanft, mein holdes Leben,” a sweet air from the singspiel “Zaide.” Her voice is ideal for Mozart – (she will be singing Zerlina at the Met next season). She spun a beautiful line with her face uplifted, backed by the stunning stained glass windows.

Richard Strauss’ lovely song cycle “Mädchenblumen,” Op. 22, with titles “Corn Flowers,” “Poppies,” “Ivy” and “Water Lilies” (Wasserrose), uses flower metaphors to describe the virtues of young women. In particular, I loved her romantic interpretation of “Ivy” (Epheu). She lingered on its final words, which describe how a maiden rests her life’s fate on her first love, with a touch of nostalgia.

Soprano Nadine Sierra and Bryan Wagorn, pianist
Soprano Nadine Sierra and Bryan Wagorn, pianist. Photo by Gayna Bassin.

Here, as in each collaboration, Wagorn’s accompaniment was both supportive and colorful, capturing each mood with tonal beauty.

Debussy’s Quatre Chansons de Jeunesse – Pantomime, Clair de lune, Pierrot and Apparition to texts by several poets — were imaginatively sung. When a cell phone interrupted this reverie, she smiled and exclaimed, “It happens!” before launching into a radiant “Pierrot.”  The final and most Impressionistic song, to a poem by Mallarmé, was intoxicating for her vocal color and effortless high notes.

The first half included love songs by Turina, “Homanaje a Lope de Vega.” I was struck by the power of her voice in these, which had emotional intensity. But perhaps more nuance would have made each of them more distinct.

The second half was sheer joy, with songs by  Franz Lehar and Messager. “Me Liaman la primorosa” from a different “Barber of Seville” (by Geronimo Gimenez and Nieto) was a showstopper. Sierra became a charming storyteller who soared through vocal flourishes and warbled into the stratosphere. When the crowd stood with ovations, she remarked, “I know, that gets me every time!”

What a treat to hear her in Ricky Ian Gordon’s song, as well as the Kismet medley. Each song was fresh and inspired.

She concluded with Stephen Foster’s “Beautiful Dreamer,” a deeply felt tribute to her mentor, Marilyn Horne. “It is dedicated to her because she opened my eyes,” the singer explained.
Poised and friendly, she greeted concertgoers afterward. She seemed to be as delighted to be in Cincinnati as in Valencia and Paris, where she goes next. Let’s hope she returns soon.

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