There's a Very Grand Place for Nadine Sierra

I cannot begin to tell you how excited I was to finally get a hold of the 24/96 files for There's a Place for Us, soprano Nadine Sierra's debut album on Deutsche Grammophon/Decca Gold. Just three years after Sierra won the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions in 2009, at the age of 20, she journeyed to San Francisco where I heard her, first, in San Francisco Opera's Merola Opera Program, then as an Adler Fellow, and finally a star on the main stage of the San Francisco War Memorial Opera House. I was immediately taken by the beauty of her voice and her total ease onstage. Serious one minute, girlishly free and hilarious the next, her every appearance was a joy.

Now, after performing at the Met multiple times, and receiving both the Richard Tucker and Beverly Sills Artists Awards—there were many more awards before that—Sierra has released her long awaited disc. Recorded in London one year ago, where she was accompanied by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra under Robert Spano, the album prefaces a lovely mix of American, Brazilian, and mixed-cultures music by Leonard Bernstein, Ricky Ian Gordon, Christopher Theofanidis, Osvaldo Golijov, Igor Stravinsky, Stephen Foster, and Heitor Villa-Lobos with some very strong talk about racism, xenophobia, immigration, classism, divisions, and unity—the hot button issues of our era.

"I wanted this album to give a little bit of hope that there is always going to be a place for everyone," Sierra states in the liner notes. "Opera belongs to everybody, no matter what age, no matter what race, no matter what kind of money you make or don't make. It will speak to you because it is a reflection of humanity." [Her italics.] She says a lot more on these subjects in a series of videos, some of which is summarized in a surprisingly bold statement from Deutsche Grammophon on its website that is introduced by Sierra's words, "I feel deep down that we can make a change in the right direction, and the right direction is about uniting people."

The big question, from an aesthetic standpoint, is if these forthright statements of unity and inclusion are allied to triumphant performances. There, I'm afraid, reactions are mixed.

On the positive side, Sierra's voice is alive, gorgeous, and positively thrilling higher in the range. Her high Cs and E-flats are full, secure, open, and free—they're everything you could hope for. It's an exceptional lyric voice, complete with an innate sense of drama that seems ideal for suffering heroines and the like. She is a major artist.

But in the suffering lies the issue. Bernstein's "There's A Place for Us" (West Side Story) and "Take Care of this House" (1600 Pennsylvania Avenue), as well as Foster's "Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair"—even Stravinsky's aria "No Word from Tom" (The Rake's Progress), which was famously recorded by Dawn Upshaw 30 years ago—are fundamentally simple statements. There may a strong element of sadness associated with these numbers—West Side Story is, after all, a tragic love story—and quite a bit of drama, but they fare best when performed in a sincere, straightforward manner that is not overladen with sentiment.

Sierra's renditions, however, are disconcertingly overwrought. The Foster suffers worst, both from interpretation and from a horrible, inexcusable edit that you don't need a high-end system to hear. Bruce Coughlin's romantic arrangement may muck up what was intended as a parlor song to be performed at home by amateur singers and pianists, but that is no reason for Sierra to slather it up. (If you're familiar with Sills's incomparable performance of the "Willow Song" from Douglas Moore's The Ballad of Baby Doe, where such an approach is 100% appropriate, you'll hear more than a bit of similarity in Sierra's English language treatments.)

This is not to suggest that Sierra is alone amongst living sopranos in refusing to honor simplicity with simplicity. To cite but one example, fresh in the memory from John McCain's memorial service, Renée Fleming's over-the-top treatment of "Danny Boy" has only gotten more insufferable since she recorded it a few years ago. I'll leave it to you to search that one out.

Other interpretations work far better. Sierra not only cuts loose in Bernstein's "Glitter and Be Gay" (Candide), but uses embellishment and improvisation to make this hilarious satire both operatic and totally her own. I'd love to see what she does with it onstage. Can she possibly come close to Kristin Chenoweth, for example?

Despite a few missteps—the hummed conclusion to Villa-Lobos's aria from Bachianas Brasileiras No.5, which even its dedicatee, Bidu Sayao, had a bit of trouble with in the recording famously conducted by the composer, is terribly pinched—Sierra's other performances are quite successful.

Whenever a piece calls for drama, tragic utterance, or melancholic sentimentality, as is the case with both arias from Villa-Lobos's Floresta do Amazonas, Sierra is just wonderful. She also gives us a rare opportunity to hear contemporary pieces by Gordon, Theofanidis, and Golijov, and honors them with interpretations apt for the material.

Ultimately, the Fort Lauderdale-born Sierra, whose firefighter father is of Puerto Rican and Italian heritage and mother is Portuguese, deserves applause for her strong stand for diversity and togetherness. There's a lot to love on this album, which you may love even more for how she puts it all together. Brava x 2, with qualifications.

tenorman's picture

I think you are spot on in regard to her overwrought interpretation . For such a young soprano I find her vibrato overly pronounced which makes the voice sound a bit matronly .

dalethorn's picture

"....and the right direction is about uniting people."

Uniting under her version of Leftism no doubt. The USA was not created as a bastion of freedom Leftist-style, and so we reject her "inclusion".

dougotte's picture

Thanks for another excellent review, Jason. Despite your slight misgivings, the various pieces here are interesting. I might give it a try.