Over the last few years, Nadine Sierra has made a big impression in San Francisco. As a young artist in the San Francisco Opera’s Merola and Adler fellowship programs, the soprano emerged as a singing actress of considerable skill and promise. That impression only deepened Wednesday evening in her vocal recital at Hotel Rex. In a brief but wide-ranging program presented as part of San Francisco Performances’ Salons at the Rex series, Sierra demonstrated just how far she’s come — a testament to the Opera’s training wing, as well as this singer’s own natural gifts.
No one who has heard Sierra in roles on San Francisco Opera’s mainstage — including the dual role of Juliet and Barbara in the world premiere of Chris Theofanidis’s Heart of a Soldier last year — could have been surprised. The soprano boasts a ripe, richly colored instrument, with secure, ringing high notes and a velvety lower register. Yet this program, accompanied by pianist Tamara Sanikidze and featuring music by Handel, Gounod, Rachmaninov, and Richard Strauss, gave Sierra the opportunity to showcase her vocalism in beguiling ways.
Looking healthy and glamorous in a form-fitting black gown, Sierra impressed right from the start. Opening with “Lascia ch’io pianga,” Almirena’s aria from Handel’s Rinaldo, the soprano sang with tenderness, sensitivity to the musical line and a keen sense of the character’s anguish. Five selections from Strauss’ Letze Blatter, Op. 10, followed. These are some of Strauss’ best-known songs — as Sierra noted, they were among the composer’s personal favorites — and her voice bloomed in them. “Zueignung” (Dedication) introduced a weightier tone, firm and expressive. If Sierra applied a little too much force in “Nichts” (Nothing) — it’s easy to overwhelm in the Rex’s intimate confines — the remainder of the set, which included “Die Georgine” (The Dahlia) and “Allerseelen” (All Soul’s Day) were exquisite. “Die Nacht” (The Night) was especially ravishing, with the song’s vivid word painting and Sierra’s artful phrasing rising to the soft final “sie stehle” — “I fear the night will also steal you from me.”
Sierra also conquered Rachmaninov’s Six Romances, Op. 38. Sandikidze introduced the set – the composer’s final works for voice and piano — explaining that these late-life works show Rachmaninov at his most conflicted. Still haunted by the 1893 death of Tchaikovsky, troubled by Russia’s social-political strife, the composer imbued each song with bottomless reserves of emotion. The vocal writing, full of yearning, concentrated passion and daunting intervals, received a sublime and touching performance by Sierra; the piano parts roil and glitter, and Sandikidze dispatched them with admirable flair and precision. The set was affectionately dedicated to the great Russian soprano Galina Vishnevskaya, who died in Moscow earlier this week at age 86.
Still, Sierra saved the best for next-to-last – a brilliant performance of selections from Gounod’s “Romeo et Juliette.” She sailed through Juliet’s “Je veux vivre” with agility, subtle timbres, and fresh, youthful tone. In “Dieu! Quel frisson,” she captured the character's vivid imagination, impulsiveness, terror, and resolve with the deftly shaded performance of a true singing actress — a performance that suggested she may become one of the opera world’s A-list Juliets in years to come. She closed the set with Fred Silver’s The Twelve Days After Christmas, singing with irresistible charm in this witty antidote to the syrupy carols currently playing at malls everywhere.
This was Sierra’s final San Francisco appearance - at least for a while. At the end of the recital, she announced that’s she’s moving to Florida, where she grew up and where her mother (who was in the audience) still lives. But this was a memorable farewell; throughout the performance, her warmth and intelligence shone through. That’s as it should be in the Salons at the Rex series, designed to offer casual performances in an intimate space. The feeling is akin to the 19th-century salon concerts held in family drawing rooms; by presenting emerging artists, it gives audiences a chance to say “we heard her when” — as those who heard Sierra during her time in San Francisco undoubtedly will.