Sometimes consistency is an obstacle; sometimes resourcefulness is a temptation. The French soprano Sandrine Piau, in her Celebrity Series debut on Saturday at Jordan Hall, proved a compelling performer, but one who offset a uniform sound with an extensive interpretive toolbox, sometimes applied to excess.
Piau is a Baroque specialist (though her program, drawn from her 2011 album, “Après un rêve,” was all 19th century and later), and her sound fits that historically-informed style: light, tightly focused, very controlled. The silvery, pure color barely varies; instead, Piau varies everything else. In songs by Felix Mendelssohn, it was diction, the drama shifting with the intensity of her consonants: sharp and glittering in “Neue Liebe,” driving and fierce for the diabolical “Hexenlied.” (Pianist Susan Manoff was at her best here, with a fleet, pearly sound; throughout, her playing was never less than precise, though it sometimes felt safely circumscribed.)
Phrasing took the lead in songs by Gabriel Fauré, minute, moment-to-moment attention, the line dissected almost syllable by syllable. It was too much; the arc of “Après un rêve,” for example, was lost amid constant, inward-curling undulation. For Fauré’s countryman Ernest Chausson, Piau wove longer musical threads, spun finer. The dramatic temperature initially dropped, as in “Dans la forêt du charme et de l’enchantment,” the enchanted forest almost frozen; but the set hit its mark with a superb account of “Les heures,” moonlit unease drawn with a compellingly steady line.
The pattern repeated throughout the evening: Piau’s detailed, close-up approach didn’t always work, but when it did, the results could be spectacular. “Morgen!” stood out among lieder by Richard Strauss, Piau’s control in service of a fleetingly precise mood. Her theatricality — every song had a distinct physical conception, in both expression and body language — sold Vincent Bouchot’s “Galgenlieder,” pitch-dark fairy-tale collages by the poet Christian Morgenstern given a cracked-music-box atmosphere. And Francis Poulenc’s chansons found Piau most at home: Louis Aragon’s wartime lament “C” was achingly lovely, its brutal-patter companion “Fêtes galantes” supersonically sardonic. (Piau and Manoff also turned to France for encores: Poulenc’s buoyant “Voyage à Paris,” the burnished undertow of Debussy’s “Beau soir.”)
In folk song settings by Benjamin Britten, Piau at first strongly echoed Elizabeth Schwarzkopf, another singer known for obsessive interpretive zeal. But Britten’s stark, spare version of “I Wonder as I Wander” was a stunning closer, Piau holding the hall in absolute stillness with voice alone. The upside of a deep toolbox is having the right tool for the job.
Matthew Guerrieri can be reached at