For a coloratura soprano, the Fire Aria from Ravel’s “L’Enfant et les Sortilèges” — high runs and Queen of the Night histrionics — is a perfect showcase for technical wizardry and spunk. So it made sense for Sabine Devieilhe, a rising star in her native France who has won acclaim at the leading opera houses of Europe, to include it in her debut at Carnegie Hall’s Weill Recital Hall on Thursday.
But Devieilhe’s impetuous and sparkling rendition of that showpiece was only the encore — an afterthought, really — for an evening of delicate, nuanced French art songs. It says something about the confidence of this 33-year-old artist that she felt no need to offer a grab bag highlighting her strengths. The program she assembled, songs by Debussy and his circle, was refined and cohesive. And it still held plenty of opportunities to show off her nimble singing and radiant tone.
Devieilhe also had a superb partner in pianist Mathieu Pordoy, whose artistry helped to make this an evening of first-rate chamber music. His finely contoured playing, especially in numbers by Debussy, stood out for its clarity and light pedal use. He revealed details in music that other pianists tend to dissolve in a reverberant haze.
Clarity was also the defining quality of Devieilhe’s performance, both in her lucid, evenly weighted tone and in her meticulous attention to language. Her program drew heavily on settings of quietly enigmatic texts, whether by Symbolist poets like Paul Verlaine or Sanskrit miniatures filtered through the lenses of Western translators.
Devieilhe embraced the emotional ambiguity of such works using tone color to bring out glints of surreal humor — as in Ravel’s “Sur l’herbe” — or draw a moody veil over an entire song, as in Albert Roussel’s “Le jardin mouillé.” (That song was one of two about rain: While Roussel rendered the irregular patter of drops rolling off leaves, Debussy’s “Il pleure dans mon coeur” captured the regular drum of precipitation on city streets and the rushing of water in gutters.)
In Poulenc’s “Fêtes galantes,” with its affectionate portrait of a busy street scene, Devieilhe found a gossipy, conversational tone close to that of a chanson singer. Debussy’s “Chevaux de bois,” about a carousel on a rural fairground, also drew forth chatty and bright singing.
But the most arresting moment, and a taste of Devieilhe’s virtuosity, came without words or accompaniment.
In 1912, composer Maurice Delage, a student of Ravel’s, traveled through India. While there, he wrote “Four Hindu Poems,” which elegantly reflect that country’s music. “Lahore” is based on a text by Heinrich Heine that imagines a snow-covered fir dreaming of a palm tree “grieving” in the heat. After the poem’s last line, the piano falls silent, and the soprano continues wordlessly in a trancelike sequence of arabesque lines, some sung through closed lips.
Devieilhe conjured an array of colors beginning with a nasal sound that turned into a warm hum before opening into cool brilliance. It was a stunning display of vocal control and proof — in the midst of an all-French recital — of Devieilhe’s polyglot artistry.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.