From the opening notes of soprano Nadine Sierra’s stunning debut album, “There’s a Place for Us” (on Deutsche Grammophon), it is clear that she is a major singer. Having evoked an enthusiastic response from audiences and critics at The Metropolitan Opera, she went on to win the prestigious Richard Tucker award in 2017, and at the gala in honor of the great tenor, she stood out among the stars. This year, she won the Beverly Sills award.
Sierra, like Eileen Farrell and Dawn Upshaw, is one of those rare opera singers who recognize no boundaries. The title track from the musical “West Side Story” indicates that Leonard Bernstein is one of Sierra’s favorite composers, in part because his approach was multiethnic and merged different forms: opera, Broadway, jazz, and Latin music. Even at the Richard Tucker Gala, where she mostly sang arias from Italian opera, she included a duet with Vittorio Grigolo of “Tonight” from “West Side Story.”
She knocks out a virtuoso version of Bernstein’s satirical “Glitter and Be Gay,” a takeoff of bel canto mad scenes, from “Candide.” She also includes a lesser known but beautiful song, “A Julia de Burgos,” from “Songfest,” a song cycle by Bernstein consisting of 12 settings of poems by American poets from the 17th to the 20th century. (Julia de Burgos came from Puerto Rico and died in Harlem; hers is the only Spanish-language piece in “Songfest.” )
There is also Bernstein’s “Take Care of This House,” with words by Alan J. Lerner, written for the unsuccessful Broadway musical “1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.” It’s a song about Abigail Adams’s plea to a slave.
A Mix of Styles and Languages
The album’s repertoire ranges from a shimmering rendition of “Jeanie With the Light Brown Hair” by America’s first great songwriter, Stephen Foster, to two poetry settings by the contemporary Ricky Ian Gordon: one by Langston Hughes (“Stars”) and the other by Emily Dickinson (“Will There Really Be a Morning?”).
Another contemporary American composer presented is Christopher Theofanidis. “Maia’s Aria” is from his opera “The Cows of Apollo,” which Sierra has performed on stage.
Sierra sings three Portuguese songs by the Brazilian composer Heitor Villa-Lobos, including two he wrote for the 1959 movie “Green Mansions. (He later expanded the film score to include music deleted from the movie and titled the fuller version of his score the “Floresta do Amazonas.”) The other is the haunting “Aria (Cantilena)” from his “Bachianas Brasileiras No. 5.” Though the original is wordless, here Portuguese lyrics are supplied by the poet Ruth Valadares Correa.
Argentine composer Osvaldo Golijov is represented by “Lúa Descolorida,” which sets to music a tragic poem by Rosalía de Castro, written in Gallego, the language of the Galicia region in Spain.
Lastly, she sings “No Word From Tom” from Igor Stravinsky’s opera “A Rake’s Progress,” with words by W.H. Auden and Chester Kallman.
The excellent accompaniment on the album is by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra under Robert Spano.
The liner notes contain all the lyrics, both the original and, for those in foreign languages, in English as well. There are informative notes by Aaron Grad, which ends with a quote from the singer that “[o]pera belongs to everybody.”
“There’s a Place For Us” is hopefully the first of many recordings by this extraordinary artist.
On Thursday, Sept. 27 at 7 p.m, she will appear for Classical Up Close: Soprano Nadine Sierra, a conversation and performance of opera arias and selections from the album, accompanied by pianist Bryan Wagorn at The Greene Space (44 Charlton St., New York); TheGreeneSpace.org
She will perform at the Richard Tucker Gala 2018 at Carnegie Hall on Oct. 21. On Dec. 12 and 13, she will appear at Madison Square Garden with Andrea Bocelli.
Her next role at The Metropolitan Opera will be as Gilda in Verdi’s “Rigoletto” on Feb. 12, 16, 19, and 23 and March 1, 6, 9, 15, and 20, 2019.
Barry Bassis has been a music, theater, and travel writer for over a decade for various publications.