High Sierra: 2017 Richard Tucker winner soars at gala concert

Mon Dec 11, 2017 at 1:16 pm
Nadine Sierra performed at the Richard Tucker gala Sunday night at xxx. Photo: Dario Acosta

Nadine Sierra performed at the Richard Tucker gala Sunday night at Carnegie Hall. Photo: Dario Acosta

As far as old-fashioned opera galas go, New York doesn’t have much that can compete with the annual Richard Tucker gala at Carnegie Hall. In addition to showcasing the latest recipient of the Richard Tucker award, the gala offers a parade of superstar singers in favorite repertoire.

Some of that star power was missing, sadly, in the 2017 gala on Sunday evening, as both Javier Camarena and Bryn Terfel were indisposed. The resulting last-minute substitutions and reconfigurations likely accounted for the largely safe selections on the program, which the assembled singers carried off with flair—most notably Nadine Sierra, the guest of honor as the 2017 Tucker Award recipient, whose performances of two Verdi arias showed the promise of a true star career.

Nicola Luisotti, leading an orchestra that included members of the Metropolitan Opera, gave a competent accompaniment to most of Sunday’s offerings, but a lack of imagination showed through in the overture to Nabucco. Similar was a rendition of “Va, pensiero,” to which the singers of New York Choral Society brought a bright sound without much weight. In the ensemble number that closed the evening, “Tutto nel mundo è burla” from Verdi’s Falstaff, Luisotti covered the singers, making it hard to hear much of the scene.

Singing one of two numbers on the evening from Pagliacci, Vittorio Grigolo outdid himself in the ham department: not content to mug behind the flowers at the front of the stage, for his performance of “Vesti la giubba” he appeared with his face half painted, lugging a towel and a stool as props. It was a comical sight in the context of the formal gala, but his performance turned out to be an emotionally gripping reading of the aria, charged and vocally intense, even if a little more barky than usual.

Ailyn Pérez, who just finished a run in the title role of Thais at the Met, offered two arias. Her top was a little tight in a brooding rendition of “Ebben? Ne andrò lontana” from La Wally, but she showed a voice of power. More successful was “Un bel di” from Madama Butterfly, again a bit steely at her top, but displaying rich color in her middle voice and finding subtle emotional details in this touchstone aria.

It’s hard to know what to make of Stephanie Blythe these days—in her first aria of the night, Giulio Cesare’s “Aure, deh, per pietà,” her voice was, as ever, enormous, blowing away any other performer of the night in sheer decibels. But the cushion on her voice seems to have dried up, leaving a bare, bellowing instrument without much texture. The same held true in the Habanera from Carmen, though here her sultry flair and theatrical antics—making passes at both conductor and concertmaster—made for an irresistible performance, even if her French was barely intelligible.

Rachel Willis-Sorensen had the thankless task of following the rapturous ovation for Blythe’s Habanera, but held her own with a stylish, playful take on Rosalinde’s Czardas from Die Fledermaus. She offered a full, flowing, caramel tone and toyed elegantly with the tempo, playing up a fake Hungarian accent for comic effect. Her winning performance might have gotten a bigger hand from the audience if Luisotti and the orchestra hadn’t buried her for most of it.

Tamara Wilson gave a bracing account of Turandot’s “In questa reggia.” Anthony Clark Evans impressed with a flexible, warm baritone in a plangent account of the Prologue from Pagliacci. Tara Erraught showed off rippling coloratura and a burning chest voice in “Nacqui all’affanno” from Rossini’s La Cenerentola, though she ran out of steam in the cabaletta.

Without question, the evening belonged to soprano Nadine Sierra, this year’s Tucker Award winner. The first vocal selection of the night was “Caro nome,” Gilda’s aria from Rigoletto—Sierra made a sensational Met debut in this role in 2015, and her interpretation has lost none of its enchanting power. Supple yet focused, her voice glowed at its top and showed hints of smoke lower down.

An even greater thrill was Sierra’s dazzling rendition of the Traviata aria and cabaletta “Ah forse lui . . . Sempre libera.” She sang the aria with passionate intensity, showing deep commitment to every word of the text, before giving way to dizzying fervor in the cabaletta. Her voice was perfectly liquid as it flowed through the treacherous runs, and she complemented her laser-focused high notes with taut energy in her middle voice. Sierra has yet to play Violetta onstage, but anyone who heard Sunday’s incandescent performance will be eagerly awaiting her eventual role debut.

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