Bavarian soprano Christiane Karg hasn’t had a lot of exposure to U.S. audiences — she’s been performing in Europe steadily since a debut at the Salzburg Festival in 2006 and only recently began making appearances on this side of the Atlantic. In 2013/14 she sang Mahler’s 4th with the Philadelphia Symphony Orchestra under Yannick Nézet-Séguin, toured with the Dresden Staatskapelle, and has appeared at the Mostly Mozart Festival in New York (under Nézet-Séguin, in Haydn’s Nelson Mass). Her operatic debut came just this past fall as Susanna in a well-received production of Le nozze di Figaro at Chicago’s Lyric Opera. On Friday night she made her local debut courtesy of San Francisco Performances in a recital with pianist Malcolm Martineau at the Herbst Theatre.
Wearing a black sleeveless gown adorned with red flowers across her waist and a billowing skirt, Karg looked like a European film star as she strode on stage, trailed by the much taller Martineau in a tux. She makes a more glamorous impression than press photos would imply. The first half of the program featured German and Spanish repertoire, followed by an all-French second half. From the moment she began singing Hugo Wolf’s Kennst du das Land, I thought this is a singer we should be hearing a lot more from in the future — she has an impressively clear tone, effective legato, and maintains eye contact with the audience. Karg’s voice isn’t huge, and doesn’t need to be — instead of volume she sings with directness to connect with the audience and create an air of intimacy, although this was sometimes intruded upon by Martineau’s abrupt banging early on, which he thankfully ceased once they moved past selections from Wolf’s Italienisches andSpanisches Liederbuch and into Gurudi’s Seis canciones castlellanas. She’s a natural for the operas of Mozart and Strauss, though her Spanish diction sounded unusual to me, probably because I’ve become used to Latin American accents.
Martineau’s playing was noticeably more in emotional sync with Karg’s voice during the French pieces of the second half, and the results were even more impressive. Beginning with Henri Duparc’s L’invitation au voyage, Karg followed with Ravel’s Five Greek Folk Songs, three etudes from Reynaldo Hahn, Charles Koechlin’s Shéhérazade, four songs by Poulenc, and ended with Duparc’s Romance de Mignon. She sang with a knowing sense of precisely where the dramatic heart of a song rests, and more than once, especially at the climax of Ravel’s “Là-bas, vers l’eglise” and Duparc’s “Romance,” she concluded with a striking combination of vocal prowess and emotional depth. After receiving deservedly warm applause they returned with an encore of Manuel de Fall’s “Lullabye.” I hope someone from San Francisco Opera was in the audience.
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