Yesterday evening the 2014–2015 San Francisco Performances Salons at the Rex series continued at the Hotel Rex with a recital by soprano Maria Valdes. Valdes is a second-year San Francisco Opera (SFO) Adler Fellow, who made her SFO debut this past November with a delightfully over-the-top performance of Clorinda, one of the vain stepsisters in Gioachino Rossini’s La Cenerentola, a particularly comical retelling of the Cinderella fairy tale. Valdes clearly has a taste for both comedy and strong personality; and these served her well when, as a member of the Merola Opera Program, she sang the role of Susanna in Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s K. 492 The Marriage of Figaro.
The title of her Salon program was Finding Home, suggesting a more autobiographical stance. The first half was titled Ancestral Homes and dealt with the legacy of her Cuban-Dominican father. The second half turned to the American repertoire and was titled Homes Left and Discovered, reflecting on the itinerant nature of the performing musician.
Her most powerful performance came at the very end of the program with “Laurie’s Song” from Aaron Copland’s opera The Tender Land. Keeping with the theme of the program, this was, by far, the most “home based” of her selections. It was also the one in which she had the strongest command in delivering the text. However, this may have been due, in part, to the fact that Copland’s mastery in setting text overshadowed every other American on the program with the possible exception of Charles Ives.
The fact is that, while composers like John Musto and John Duke have high designs in setting the poetry of Edna St. Vincent Millay and Sara Teasdale, their appreciation of the poems themselves never seems to extend very far beneath the surface. Both performer and listener are thus confronted with what amounts to a reflection on a superficial gloss of the “basic semantics,” as if anything that makes the poem a poem, so to speak, is not relevant to what the composer does. None of the nineteenth-century composers we remember (Franz Schubert, Robert Schumann, Johannes Brahms, Hugo Wolf) ever thought about poetry this way; and it was disappointing that, in Valdes’ selection, only Copland established credentials that would number him among his nineteenth-century predecessors.
On the “ancestral” side, Valdes had some serious diction problems. She even confessed to a conflict between her command of Spanish and her command of Italian, which is more than understandable. However, she also seemed to lack the light touch that would have served the rhetoric of the eighteenth-century songs of Blas de Laserna and Antoni Lliteres Carrió or the selections from the later nineteenth-century-influenced zarzuelas.
Indeed, throughout the evening, much of Valdes’ singing seemed directed more to the opera house than the salon. Only her Copland and Ives performances seemed to settle into a comfort zone focused on piano, rather than forte. She clearly has a personality that fits well into the intimacy of a salon setting. All she needs is a repertoire more conducive to such intimacy and a gentler approach to dynamics to match that repertoire.