Skip to main content Skip to footer site map
Review: ISABEL LEONARD and PABLO SÁINZ-VILLEGAS Together at The Conrad in La Jolla

Review: ISABEL LEONARD and PABLO SÁINZ-VILLEGAS Together at The Conrad in La Jolla

A recital of opera diva and classical guitarist

Review: ISABEL LEONARD and PABLO SÁINZ-VILLEGAS Together at The Conrad in La Jolla
Isabel Leonard and Pablo Sáinz-Villegas.
Photo: Sam Zauscher

Mezzo Isabel Leonard and classical-guitarist Pablo Sáinz-Villegas are stars in their fields.

Leonard has sung on two Grammy-winning opera recordings and won a Beverly Sills Artist Award at the Metropolitan Opera--and even guested on Sesame Street. Sáinz-Villegas has garnered 30 international awards, including the Segovia, which he won at age 15, and critics have compared him to that legendary guitarist.

Understandably, their recital at the La Jolla Music Society's Conrad sold out more than a month before the performance--chairs were added on stage for late ticket buyers--and the artists lived up to their reputations.

Leonard's voice has the beauty and easy fluid power of a top mezzo, while the guitarist's exceptional technique and control bring the best from quiet single notes or hard, Flamenco-like strumming.

But is the combination of mezzo and acoustic guitar ready to supplant diva and piano? Not likely in the grand-opera arias that began the concert.

The first was the familiar Seguidilla from Act I of CARMEN. Leonard will make her debut as Carmen at the Washington National Opera in May, and she'll have no trouble convincing the audience that Corporal Don José would succumb and desert his post to join her in a smuggler's mountain-hideout. Had he the voice, Sáinz-Villegas would make a dashing tenor costar. But in this recital his very basic guitar accompaniment, no matter how well played, added little to Leonard's seductive performance.

The combination did work better in the following Voi che sapete from NOZZE DI FIGARO, though the guitar can't match the playfully delicious piano trills in a more typical recital arrangement.

Review: ISABEL LEONARD and PABLO SÁINZ-VILLEGAS Together at The Conrad in La Jolla
Sáinz Villegas. Photo: Sam Zauscher

By the time duo-arrangements of arias from Offenbach and Rossini had further demonstrated Leonard's charisma and skill, I was thirsting for a solo piece from Sáinz-Villegas and was amply rewarded with the shimmering glory of Francisco Tárrega's "Recuerdos de la Alhambra." I've heard performances as good, but none better, and none in acoustics as awesome as those of the Conrad. The hushed final single notes would have been inaudible in some venues.

Leonard returned to close the first set with five of the seven folk songs arranged for soprano and piano in a work by Manuel De Falla. The transfer to mezzo and guitar showed how effective the combination could be when not taking on Grand-Opera.

After intermission, Sáinz Villegas pleased with Asturias, written originally for piano by Albéniz and later transcribed for guitar by Segovia and others. As in his first solo, he showed why Billboard has called him the "soul of the Spanish guitar."

And the second half of the concert continued with successful demonstrations of how effective voice and guitar can be. Leonard first teamed for three of the many Spanish folksongs collected and arranged by Garcia Lorca for performances in which he accompanied himself on piano or guitar. Sáinz-Villegas reinforced the Latin mood with his final solo, the virtuosic "Tango en Skai" by guitarist Roland Dyens. Precise and brilliant liquid runs alternated with forceful rhythmic strumming.

Duets of lilting romantic songs by Latin composers Carlos Gardel, Ariel Ramírez, and Julián

Review: ISABEL LEONARD and PABLO SÁINZ-VILLEGAS Together at The Conrad in La Jolla
Leonard and Sáinz Villegas. Photo: Sam Zauscher

Carrillo completed the formal program. It was in these that the charm, skill and versatility of the attractive duo was most effective.

Demanded encores brought the concert to a close with three familiar melodies. Carmen's Habanera was a chance for Leonard to range from sassily seductive to powerful as guitar supplied the dance rhythm.

"Bésame Mucho" showed the artists at ease in the pop genre, as did the grand finale, "Cielito Lindo." The entire audience joined for the chorus's "Ay, ay, ay, ay," many even continued with the following Spanish lyrics. All enjoyed a song that brings people together in a festive mood--an enjoyable start to the holiday season.

The concert reviewed took place on December 1 and was the first in a promised series of collaborations between the San Diego Opera and the La Jolla Music Society.



OPERA America Awards The 2023 IDEA Opera Residencies To Three New-To-Opera Creators Of Col Photo
OPERA America has announced the recipients of the 2023 IDEA Opera Residencies program (Inclusion, Diversity, Equity, and Access), an initiative that provides New York City-based composers and librettists of color an opportunity to explore opera as an expressive medium.

Review: THE DAUGHTER OF THE REGIMENT at Minnesota Opera Photo
What did our critic think of THE DAUGHTER OF THE REGIMENT at Minnesota Opera?

Works & Process at The Guggenheim Presents CHAMPION, An Opera By Terence Blanchard Photo
Works & Process at the Guggenheim presents Champion-an opera by Terence Blanchard, with a libretto by Michael Cristofer-featuring performances by members of the cast and a moderated discussion about the work's forthcoming company premiere at the Metropolitan Opera.

Interview: Stephanie Blythe of SAN DIEGO OPERAS PUCCINI DUO at San Diegos Civic Center Photo
Stephanie Blythe is probably the only opera singer who represents an ukulele company. That she embodies the unexpected is further confirmed by her upcoming roles in the San Diego Opera's next production, two one-act operas by Puccini. The mezzo soprano will first sing a deeper contralto as the Principessa in Suor Angelica. Then, in title role of Gianni Schicchi, she'll be in the baritone range traditionally assigned to a male singer.


From This Author - Ron Bierman

Ron Bierman has performed on saxophone and flute in several college and other orchestras. He graduated from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology where his studies included music theory as taug... (read more about this author)


Interview: Stephanie Blythe of SAN DIEGO OPERA'S PUCCINI DUO at San Diego's Civic CenterInterview: Stephanie Blythe of SAN DIEGO OPERA'S PUCCINI DUO at San Diego's Civic Center
February 6, 2023

Stephanie Blythe is probably the only opera singer who represents an ukulele company. That she embodies the unexpected is further confirmed by her upcoming roles in the San Diego Opera's next production, two one-act operas by Puccini. The mezzo soprano will first sing a deeper contralto as the Principessa in Suor Angelica. Then, in title role of Gianni Schicchi, she'll be in the baritone range traditionally assigned to a male singer.

Interview: Nicolas Reveles of San Diego Opera's Production of GHOSTS at The Balboa TheatreInterview: Nicolas Reveles of San Diego Opera's Production of GHOSTS at The Balboa Theatre
January 24, 2023

Recently retired Nicolas Reveles was the face of San Diego Opera for 40 years, known to most opera-goers primarily because of his informative and entertaining pre-performance talks. I suspect few in the audience knew he was also an opera composer, a choir director and a piano prodigy. In an hour discussion via Zoom, we spoke about his background and how he came to write GHOSTS, a three-act opera that the San Diego Opera will premiere in March. GHOSTS echoes a scene from SEXTET, an earlier work he’d written on commission for San Diego’s Diversionary Theatre. The scene reflected his love for the horror genre.

Review: ANNE AKIKO MEYERS And THE SAN DIEGO SYMPHONY at The California Center For The Arts, EscondidoReview: ANNE AKIKO MEYERS And THE SAN DIEGO SYMPHONY at The California Center For The Arts, Escondido
January 11, 2023

What did our critic think of ANNE AKIKO MEYERS AND THE SAN DIEGO SYMPHONY at The California Center For The Arts, Escondido? Review: A New Violin Concerto Delights the Audience!

Review: PONCHO SANCHEZ LATIN JAZZ BAND at The ConradReview: PONCHO SANCHEZ LATIN JAZZ BAND at The Conrad
December 20, 2022

“We love you, Poncho!” came a shout from the audience before the musicians had played their first note. And a few tunes later, even some silver-haired members of the La Jolla community were dancing in the aisles. The Poncho Sanchez Latin Jazz Band has that effect on people. It’s hard to keep your feet still and a smile off your face once Sanchez and his talented rhythm section start a salsa beat.

Review: ISABEL LEONARD and PABLO SÁINZ-VILLEGAS Together at The Conrad in La JollaReview: ISABEL LEONARD and PABLO SÁINZ-VILLEGAS Together at The Conrad in La Jolla
December 5, 2022

Mezzo Isabel Leonard and classical-guitarist Pablo Sáinz-Villegas are stars in their fields. Leonard has sung on two Grammy-winning opera recordings and won a Beverly Sills Artist Award at the Metropolitan Opera--and even guested on Sesame Street. He's garnered 30 international awards, including the Segovia, which he won at age 15, and critics have compared him to that legendary guitarist. Understandably, their recital at the La Jolla Music Society's Conrad sold out more than a month before the performance. Chairs were added on stage for late ticket buyers.