Sandrine Piau returns to Washington with more French songs
Sandrine Piau’s debut in Washington, one year ago at the Phillips Collection, was a triumph. It was an ideal match of the French soprano’s light, refined voice to the French mélodie repertoire, in the intimate setting of the museum’s small music room.
Her return Tuesday evening, presented by Vocal Arts DC, was in a program that was new but cut from the same cloth, including more songs by Poulenc, an especially good match. The only difference was the venue, the larger Theatre of the Arts at the University of the District of the Columbia.
A set of songs by Chausson provided a gorgeous opening to the evening, with Piau’s subtle and exquisite rendition of “Hébé” and “Le charme.” The final high note of “Sérénade” floated like a limpid cloud. Pianist Susan Manoff added elfin lightness on the complicated accompaniment to “Neue Liebe” to open a Mendelssohn set, and she stole the limelight in the same composer’s “Hexenlied,” her dancing pianism evoking the movement and cackling of the witches’ coven.
The room drew attention to the softness of Piau’s instrument, a voice of shaded reserves more than bold strokes. In larger accompaniments, like “Hexenlied,” Manoff kept her foot firmly on the soft pedal, creating an opalescent sheen around her partner’s sound. The theme of the program, laid out in a fanciful insert titled “What is a dream?,” was dreamscapes, quoting lines from the central Mendelssohn song, “Nachtlied.” The subdued character of the evening, inviting listeners to lean in and muse on murky details in the twilight, was part of its charm.
Francis Poulenc created the song cycle La courte paille (The short straw) for his muse, soprano Denise Duval, to sing to her young son. The poetry by Maurice Carême reads at times like Surrealist nonsense, but the imagery sits at the edge of nursery-tale fantasy, and Piau delivered it with disarming, child-like simplicity.
Charming faux-seriousness in the patter song “Ba, Be, Bi, Bo, Bu” followed wide-eyed cuteness in “Quelle aventure,” a song about a flea pulling an elephant in a carriage. In “La reine de cœur” she leaned languorously into the piano, suddenly an elegant chanteuse in a smoke-filled bar. The air of unperturbed stillness carried into the final song, “Lune d’avril,” words trailing off to the continuing sing-song of the piano, as if the listening child had finally drifted off to sleep.
On either side of intermission, the first three of Berg’s Seven Early Songs underscored a harmonic kinship with a set of Debussy songs. The same transparent approach from singer and pianist worked beautifully in the first two, but “Die Nachtigall” lacked some of the sensual ecstasy heard from larger voices in these pieces. The Debussy set had no such shortcomings, music made for a voice just like Piau’s, creating the sense of poetry recited with utter naturalism and that just happens to have music accompanying it.
The pair’s take on the concert’s most familiar song, Debussy’s “Beau soir,” was a revelation in this regard, phrases linked together by strong breath support in a way that was more like speaking. Having not lingered over any facet of the piece, Piau then lavished time and space on the final line, noting the waves that go off into the sea while we go to the tomb. Lissome high notes glowed without any strain in both “Nuit d’étoiles” and “Fleur des blés.”
Strauss’s Mädchenblumen Lieder had the least success, perhaps needing a greater vocal variety to go with the different characters of women explained in poetry and music. The final set of Poulenc songs, slightly reordered from the program, included the charming waltz of “Les chemins de l’amour” and the languid “Hôtel.” Two encores concluded the evening in much the same spirit: “Fantoche” from Debussy’s Fêtes galantes and Ivor Gurney’s “Sleep.”
The Vocal Arts DC season continues with a recital by soprano Lisette Oropesa and pianist Vlad Iftinca 7:30 p.m. March 11 at UDC Theatre of the Arts. vocalartsdc.org; 202-669-1463.