Dallas — Nadine Sierra lived up to, and easily exceeded, expectations on Sunday when she sang a recital in Dallas at the sold-out Moody Performance Hall. The recital of art songs is an endangered species but thanks to the Dallas Opera’s Robert and Jean Ann Titus Art Song Recital Series, Dallasites are blessed with concerts such as this one. Both Sierra, in a stunning gold lamé dress, and her superb collaborative pianist, Bryan Wagorn were magnificent.
In a recent interview, Sierra said that the pair have performed together ever since they met at the Mannes School of Music ad they have built a repertoire of songs that have become second nature for the pair of artists and that was evident on Sunday. The mind-meld connection allowed for freedom of interpretation, that went beyond mere rubato, while still being precisely together for every note. It also meant that the balance between singer and piano was always excellent.
The program was an interesting concoction of some very well known German songs by Richard Strauss, Franz Schubert and Robert Schumann. This was followed by the less well-known Hermit Songs by the American composer Samuel Barber. The program ended with a song by another American composer, Leonard Bernstein, but the bulk of the second half consisted of songs by Latin composers in honor of Sierra’s heritage. Her mother is Portuguese and her father is a combination of Italian and Puerto Rican.
The German songs are ones that appear frequently on a myriad of college student recitals, but it was a real treat to hear them performed by such consummate artists. The Strauss selections were “Zueignung,” “Allerseelen,” “Ständchen,” “Cäcilie,” and “Morgen.”
The piano part in these songs is an equal partner, sometime having long stretches of music without the singer. It was in these passages, especially in “Cäcilie” and “Morgen,” when it was evident there was a fine artist at the keyboard. Wagorn led to Sierra’s entrance so seamlessly that observers almost thought she had been singing all along. Sierra proved to be a master of long, spinning phrases and a focused pianissimo sound that seemed to hang in the air on its own. The ending of “Morgen” was too slow—the line became lost—but other than that tempi were right on.
There was an enthusiastic ovation after every song and Sierra didn’t remind the audience that applause is usually reserved for the end of a set of songs. But she acknowledged the applause with a one-liner: “It’s not me,” she quipped, “It’s Strauss.” But, it is doubtful that they would have listened to that advice and the interruption of applause after each song continued.
Her only Schubert song, “Du bist die Ruh,” was probably not in the best spot in the program in that it is slow and reflective much like the song it followed, “Morgen.” The Schumann song, “Widmung,” which followed the Schubert might have been better moved up a notch in the program.
The tight musical collaboration was demonstrated in the performance of “Widmung.” Wagorn started the song, but Sierra entered at a slightly slower tempo. It only took him two notes to match her. Quite remarkable. (I preferred Wagorn’s tempo.)
Samuel Barber’s Hermit Songs are a treasure in the song literature. Barber wrote them for the legendary soprano Leontyne Price who premiered them in 1953 with Barber at the piano. The texts for the 10 songs were written by anonymous Irish monks and scholars from the Eighth to the 13th centuries, in translations by distinguished, more contemporary, poets.
- "At St Patrick’s Purgatory" (translated by Seán Ó Faoláin)
- "Church Bell at Night" (translated by Howard Mumford Jones)
- "St Ita’s Vision" (translated by Chester Kallman)
- "The Heavenly Banquet" (translated by Seán Ó Faoláin)
- "The Crucifixion" (translated by Howard Mumford Jones)
- "Sea Snatch" (translated by Kenneth H. Jackson)
- "Promiscuity" (translated by Kenneth H. Jackson)
- "The Monk and his Cat" (translated by W.H. Auden)
- "The Praises of God" (translated by W.H. Auden)
- "The Desire for Hermitage" (translated by Seán Ó Faoláin)
Each of these songs has a distinctive character and tells it own story, Sierra caught all of these changes of mood and sang them like miniature opera arias. Wagorn, as always, matched her inflections.
Unfortunately, the audience’s habit of applauding after every song continued here, disturbing the flow of the cycle.
Sierra spoke to the audience before the second half, briefly sharing her experiences as a child and her fascination with opera after hearing a performance of Puccini’s La bohème.
She opened the Spanish language part of the piano with a song cycle by Joaquín Turina Pérez. (As is the custom in Spanish names, Pérez is his mother’s name and the family name takes the idle position, so programs always list him as Joaquín Turina.)
The cycle, his Opus 90, is titled Hommenaje a Lope de Vega. De Vega (1562-1635) was a poet and playwright writing in the Spanish Baroque era of the 1600’s. He was quite influential. The songs are: “Cuando tan hermosa os miro” (“When I Gaze on You, So Lovely”), “Si con mis deseos” (“If the Seasons”) and “Al val de Fuente Ovejuna” (“The Valley of Fuente Ovejuna”). Overall, the music, which dates from 1935, has hints of Debussy and Ravel with a Spanish overlay.
Wagorn perfectly set the Spanish mood of the cycle with the somber introduction to the first song. Sierra picked it up by floating the poignant vocal line. The second song continued the delicate mood, while the last song changed to a very strong temperament and they brought the cycle to a powerful end.
A song by the Brazilian composer Engenho Nova-Braga was the highlight of the second half and is a signature song for Sierra. It is a fast-paced patter song and she used her voice almost like a tap dancer would to accent rhythms. When it ended, everyone was breathless—except for Sierra. You can hear her perform it on YouTube here.
A song by Leonard Bernstein, “A Julia de Burgos,” followed. This is from his epic Songfest (12 songs by different poets that cover 300 years and widely divergent subjects.). This one is about feminism and ended with the words: “I am life, I am strength, I am woman!”
Finally, for encores, we heard some opera—her specialty. She delivered a rather slow and labored, but beautifully sung, version of Puccini’s "O mio babbino caro" ("Oh My Dear Father") from the opera Gianni Schicchi (1918). All was forgiven with a spectacular rendition of “Caro Nome” (“Dearest Name”) from Verdi’s Rigoletto. This aria is the Quad Lutz for coloratura soprani. Not only did she execute is perfectly, she stuck the landing.