Unsung Singers: Sandrine Piau Conjures a Spirit of Intimacy and Romance

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In a recent article about unusual opera this summer, I noted that Rolando Villazón will be appearing in Monteverdi’s Il Combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda on August 15 at Finland’s Turku Festival. The female lead will be Sandrine Piau, which is just as newsworthy for admirers of this soprano who is not, I believe, as widely acclaimed as she should be.

Piau, born in the suburbs of Paris in 1965, is what is often described as “a special artist.” This term implies that she is undeniably gifted but either favors or is most suited for repertory that is outside the bread-and-butter works in which most audiences would encounter her. The foremost exemplar in our time of the “special artist” is Renée Fleming, who sings all kinds of works that engage her and who has had the ability and good fortune to attract large audiences. Another “special artist” is Dawn Upshaw, who performed all kinds of repertory in the early stages of her career and then evolved to become the muse for many contemporary composers, including Osvaldo Golijov and Kaija Saariaho.

Some of Piau's more mainstream roles include Monteverdi’s Poppea, Pamina in Die Zauberflöte, Donna Anna in Don Giovanni and Mélisande in Pelléas et Mélisande. But you are just as likely to encounter her in Handel operas and oratorios and other Baroque music. She sings mostly in London, Glyndebourne, Brussels, Salzburg, Paris and other French cities. Aside from two concert tours in North America, I don’t know of any opera done on this continent, though American audiences can sample her voice in her new collection of 18th-century French opera scenes, "Le Triomphe de l’Amour."

I heard Piau in her New York recital debut at Carnegie Hall in October 2009 and added her to my checklist of artists to follow. I had known of her from European friends but had not had the occasion to hear her live. To see her and watch her brought to mind the actress Audrey Tatou as the title character in Amélie. I later learned that it is one of Piau’s favorite films.

Onstage, Piau creates a mood that is intimate and romantic but not in a customary French way emphasizing chic and charme. Rather, she creates an environment that might be called spiritual, except that the spirituality (a dicey and misused word in our times) is the spirit of intimacy and romance, but with an acknowledgement of unseen, unspoken forces that might include a higher power. The sensation is very particular and I have never encountered it with another singer of any type.

In preparing this article, I read a 2009 interview with Piau that reveals some of her views about music and performance:

"I sing not just for the beauty of the music, but more to escape from our terrestrial everyday existence. For it’s like another world: the body stays fixed to the ground, but the voice and my spirit are elsewhere, floating through the air. Another motivation to sing is a fascination with the possibility to communicate emotions. How can one take one’s emotions that only oneself are feeling and transfer them so that others can share in them? Here there is no clear answer, no recipe.”

I had the opportunity to hear Piau again this year. On March 10, she sang at Paris’s Théâtre des Champs Elysées in the title role of Handel’s Theodora, an oratorio he wrote toward the end of this career. It was conducted by Hervé Niquet and his ensemble Le Concert Spirituel. Theodora is a Christian princess and there is an air of mystery and spirituality about her that Piau wholly engaged. I had heard the work only once before, starring Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, another “special artist” who had the gifts necessary to engage with the spiritual dimensions of music. Piau was wonderful as Theodora, though much more contained and internalized than Lieberson. But, with her face and voice, she was eloquent. It made me wonder which role she could play in Poulenc’s Les Dialogues des Carmélites.

Six weeks later, Piau returned to New York for a beautiful recital at Zankel Hall. Since then I have engaged, with great pleasure, in listening to three of her excellent recordings (others are "Après un Rêve" and "Évocation"), all on the Naïve label, to give some thought as to why she is not better known. A lot of the music she sang at her two New York recitals can be found on these albums.

With clips from YouTube I am able to share with you some of my responses to Piau’s singing. First, some French-language music:

Chausson’s song Le temps des lilas 

One is immediately struck by the straightforward purity and beauty of her singing. But you could argue that this native French singer chooses not to emphasize every consonant as do other artists (including some non-French singers who are highly schooled in the language). This choice, and it certainly must be one in the case of Piau, would make her an exception to the stylistic approach we usually encounter and often expect in French repertory. Her communication, more than most singers, comes in sound rather than words. I had a similar reaction in her rendering of this romance by Claude Debussy.

I went back to an earlier performance, Mozart’s Ah se in ciel, from 1995. Although it is in Italian, many of the hallmarks of later performances are there: beauty, mystery, a touch of luxuriant opulence, but with less emphasis on text than one finds nowadays and that many listeners, myself included, tend to favor.

Here she is as Cleopatra in Handel’s opera Giulio Cesare, singing Se Pietà with considerable intensity and more emphasis on consonants as well as letting her voice soar on the vowels. 

I can understand every word. It is a more customary approach to this music, and no less gratifying because of it. This performance indicates that the stylistic choices involved were either made by Piau or perhaps with the encouragement of René Jacobs, the conductor. Perhaps the fact that this is a live performance gives it more imperative than one hears on her recordings. Which brings us to Theodora and the aria With darkness deep as is my woe:

Again, attention to words are not all we might seek and yet I am drawn not only to the beauty of the voice but the sense of emotional truthfulness in the sound of the music as she performs it.

Studying the art of Sandrine Piau made me realize anew that the particular combination of gifts possessed and choices made by any special artist cannot always be quantified and analyzed, certainly not in the context of the predominant styles and performance practice. I feel that there are many singers who rely entirely on beautiful voices and rock-solid techniques, but that can come up short. They don’t allow themselves to roam free spiritually, going where their heart and soul may lead them. When I listen to Piau, I don’t analyze, but allow myself to float freely. And sometimes, when all the stars align, I go spinning into orbits of ecstasy and wonder.