Napa Valley, Festival del Sole 2015: Nadine Sierra & Brian Zeger

Napa Valley Festival del Sole 2015, Castello di Amorosa
Soprano Nadine Sierra
Piano Brian Zeger
Charles Gounod: “Ah, je veux vivre” from Roméo et Juliette
Claude Debussy: From Chansons de Jeunesse –  Pierrot, Pantomime, Clair de Lune, Apparition.
Gaetano Donizetti: “Regnava nel silenzio” from Lucia di Lammermoor
Giuseppe Verdi: “Caro nome” from Rigoletto
Giacomo Puccini: “Quando m’en vo” from La Bohème
Joaquín Turina: Homenaje a Lope de Vega, Op. 90 – Cuando tan hermosa os miro, Si con mis deseos, Al val de Fuente Ovejuna.
Joaquín Rodrigo: Cuatro amatorios madrigales – ¿Con qué la lavaré?, Vos me matásteis, ¿De dónde venís, amore?, De los álamos vengo, madre.
Gioachino Rossini: “Arpa gentil che fida” from Il Viaggio a Rheims
Stephen Foster: Beautiful Dreamer
16 July 2015   

Opera lovers make a good argument for being the gluttons amongst patrons of art. Why settle for a standalone theater, song, dance or symphonic performance when the aforementioned art forms could be combined and experienced together? Happy to indulge the culture vulture hedonists who want it all, Napa Valley Festival del Sole takes the Gesamtkunswerk concept a step further and offers a 10-day Smörgåsbord of activities that titillates all five senses. The annual summer festival, now in it’s tenth year, artfully blends the world’s finest classical, jazz, opera, theater, and dance performances with curated culinary, wine and even fitness pursuits, and presents them in the region’s most iconic settings.   Perched atop the hills of Napa Valley with sweeping views of the vineyards below, Dario Sattui’s 13th-century Tuscan-inspired castle (and winery) provided a medieval mise-en-scène for the opening night festivities. Nadine Sierra‘s appearance was an unexpected, but delightful surprise. The young soprano stepped in at a moment’s noticed for an indisposed Deborah Voigt, and although Sierra and pianist Brian Zeger had only an hour to rehearse the new program before the show, the end result coalesced so seamlessly that one would have thought they’d been performing together for years.
The program, structured like a wine tasting, opened with a bubbly “Ah, je veux vivre” that tickled the listener’s aural palate. This aria has been one of Sierra’s repertoire warhorses for several years now, and one she tackles with ease. In her next set, Sierra evokes Proustian childhood memories of story time at the local bookstore. With an expressive face and animated eyes, she narrates the four whimsical Chansons de Jeunesse, bringing to life the various characters of the Commedia dellarte. Foreshadowing key elements in the ensuing number, “Clair de Lune” and “Apparition” served as the perfect segue to Donizetti’s “Regnava nel silenzio,” an aria that signals a departure from the whites to the rosé wines; conveniently there’s even a reference to the Saignée at the end (metaphorically speaking, of course). Here we get to enjoy what I find most appealing about this singers voice – the contrast between her rich, creamy middle and a bright, agile top. Her coloratura notes, while clear and focused, do not sound punched or piercing; her attacks are effortless. Another delightful aspect of Sierra’s performance is that she gets into full character for every aria, immersing herself in each respective role. Following a somber, slightly crazy-eyed Lucia, a role she recently performed in Zurich, her wide-eyed Gilda was giddy and reminiscent of the first time one falls in love.
Pianists, when performing as accompanists to a vocalist, are often underappreciated. Special recognition ought to be given to Brian Zeger, who’s contribution is worthy of genuflection. Not only was he charged with the difficult task of mastering a brand new set of music, he was able to quickly familiarize himself with Sierra’s subtle cues (in the form of a breath or vocal inflection) allowing the singer to be at her best. His astute playing, which was clean and fluid, supported her phrasing and enhanced her voice. Zeger also emceed most of the program providing thoughtful, articulate introductions to the musical sets. It’s easy to see why he was chosen as the intermission host for the Metropolitan Opera radio broadcasts on numerous occasions. As a collaborative pianist, Zeger is one of the best I’ve seen.
After a leisurely intermission, the meatier reds appeared in the second half of the program. A fleshy, showy Caymus Cabernet comes to mind as Sierra’s brazen Musetta makes her way into the audience, taunting and seducing various members sitting on the aisle. Then came a flight of Spanish varietals, songs deliberately selected by Sierra to pay tribute to her heritage and to shine light on these lesser known, yet exquisitely beautiful works. In a phone call with the soprano, she remarked that “each of these songs represents a different kind of love – shameful love, lost love, unattainable love, yearning, jealousy… and I chose these songs to follow ‘Quando m’en vo’ because Musetta is the embodiment of all of them. Everything she has to say is in these songs.” Ending the evening on a sweet note, the last two selections were a real treat. “Arpa gentile che fida” from the rarely performed Il Viaggio a Rheims showcased Sierra’s virtuosity and mastery of the high tessitura. As a striking juxtaposition the singer next unleashed a robust and velvety bel canto rendition of Stephen Foster’s “Beautiful Dreamer,” an homage to her mentor, Marilyn Horne. Sierra gave one encore after singing happy birthday to one of the festival benefactors: her signature “O mio babbino caro.”Photographer: Paul E. Richardson – Robert McClenahan



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