Deep scores under penetrating eyes, thick wild locks and artfully loose-fitting clothing – Théophile Gautier is one of the most arresting portrait subjects of the 19th century. A painter and professional Bohemian in his younger years, Gautier became a pluriform writer, producing plays, novels, travelogues and poems. He was also an art, music, dance and literary critic. He wrote the scenario for Giselle and surrendered his heart to the role’s creator, the great ballerina Carlotta Grisi. She did not reciprocate, so he logically married her sister. Soprano Elizabeth Watts constructed her French song programme around Gautier’s poetry. Although he was a fully-fledged Romantic, Gautier’s metaphors often appear uncomplicated at first, only to diffuse into a symbolist landscape where love, death and longing converge. They do so most dazzlingly in the six poems that Hector Berlioz, his lifelong friend, set as the song cycle Les nuits d’été. This cycle made up the second half of this fascinating programme, which featured several pairs of settings of the same text by different composers. It was interesting to compare, for example, Duparc’s resigned dirge Lamento, with its distressed change of tempo in the last strophe, to the meandering thoughts in the fifth song of the Berlioz cycle, Au cimetière.

Elizabeth Watts © Marco Borggreve
Elizabeth Watts
© Marco Borggreve
Unfortunately, Watts was suffering from the flu and, although brimming over with emotional energy, much of her performance was managed rather than memorable. Feeling tired, she scrapped three early Debussy songs, including a Séguidille inspired by the composer’s first muse, Marie Blanche Vasnier, whom he met while accompanying singing lessons. Judging, among others, by the dizzying roulades in the Séguidille, the very pretty and very married Madame Vasnier must have had a head for heights and killer coloratura. It was wise of Watts, if disappointing for the audience, to leave out this number, because her indisposition affected the voice at both extremes, and her top notes sometimes took on an irksome hardness. At the other extreme, the threnodic descents into chest register in Berlioz’s Sur les lagunes ended in hollow notes. Watts’ greatest challenge seemed to be getting her voice to respond flexibly. Working with diminished expressive means, she tended to compensate with forte singing that was much too loud for the intimate Recital Hall at the Concertgebouw.

Such big vocal statements suited Bizet’s quasi-operatic Absence and Chausson’s La Caravane, although the latter’s low tessitura tested the singer to the limit. In De Falla’s Séguidille, a more authentic-sounding composition than its text twin by Debussy, Watts sounded a tad too earnest for the portrait of the spicy Spanish dancer. The other two songs in the De Falla set, the dreamy Les Colombes (The Doves) and the facetious Chinoiserie, could also have used a lighter touch. Pianist Roger Vignoles accompanied them all with delicious fluidity. Indeed, his clear and nuanced playing was a constant pleasure. He made every note speak, echo and ripple, treating each song as a unique painting. Well-prepared throughout, not a scrap of sheet music in sight, Watts was similarly expressive, but her voice refused to bend all the way. In Berlioz’s Villanelle, for instance, she brought the full brightness of her soprano to the young lovers’ jaunt, but leaned too heavily on the words at the end of each phrase.

There is usually little pleasure in watching a singer soldiering on through illness, instead of her being tucked up in bed with a cup of chicken soup. Nevertheless, Watts’ rich-toned soprano, with its complex flavours, coupled with her musical intelligence, made for a rewarding evening. There were moments of subtle vocal loveliness when she had the voice under complete control, as in the repeated call for the return of the beloved in Berlioz's Absence. Her first “Reviens, reviens, ma bien-aimée” had a blunt edge. The other two, however, were beautifully floated, capturing the poet’s dazed longing. Most satisfying were the songs in which Watts could pour out her lavish middle voice, such as Duparc’s haunting Lamento or the regretfully reflective Infidélité by Hahn.

One would think, once she got through Les nuits d'été with much beautiful phrasing, but also some dicey ascents and descents on the register lift, that the audience, warm and understanding, would leave it at that. There was, however, after the standing up and cheering, the customary sitting down again for the obligatory encore. Watts proferred one of the deleted numbers, Debussy’s Les Papillons. A tidy ending, since the opening song was the rarely heard Beaux papillons blancs by Loius Vierne — different title, same white butterflies and text. Hopefully, Elizabeth Watts recovered quickly after her unstinting performance and will be in peak form singing here next time.