Australian soprano Nicole Car and her husband, the French-Canadian baritone Etienne Dupuis, last performed together in Sydney for Opera Australia’s concert presentation of Massenet’s Thaïs in 2017. It’s therefore fitting that their follow-up appearance is with a touring recital of French song, which sees them luxuriously partnered by pianist Jayson Gillham.

Nicole Car and Etienne Dupuis. Photograph © Yan Bleney

Although it was announced from the stage that Car was suffering from a virus, necessitating program changes, the soprano exhibited very little vocal strain. Her French idiomatic and expressive, she opened the recital with a voluptuously serene rendition of Duparc’s L’invitation au voyage, the important refrain “La tout n’est qu’ordre et beaute, Luxe, calme et volupte” (There all is order and beauty, luxury, calm, and pleasure!) sung with palpable longing. As always, Car draws from a remarkable palette of colours to impart meaning and establish mood, as with Hahn’s L’heure exquise, which seemed to tremble with a mixture of sorrow and hope. With tonal refulgence and attention to text, the soprano made Massenet’s Élégie quietly devastating, preceded by an equally haunting account of Fauré’s Automne. A sublime setting of the Armand Silvestre poem, Car lavished on it not only beautifully sculpted phrasing but delicacy of line, a restrained approach matched by Gillham’s sensitive pianism. His playing throughout was full of exquisite detail, his solo contributions – an impassioned Mélancolie by Poulenc and an affecting The Lover And The Nightingale – perfectly judged. And demonstrating her versatility as an artist, Car also offered up a coquettish Les filles de Cadix, a demanding party piece by Delibes, and a witty reading of Massenet’s Nuit d’Espagne.

Though Dupuis’ handsome lyric baritone has grown of late, he’s still able to scale it back to provide the intimacy required of French song. He brought great tenderness to Duparc’s Chanson triste, making it a short but intense emotional journey, while the same composer’s Le manoir de Rosamonde, a sinister evocation of thwarted love, was conveyed with ample vocal glamour. Simplicity of expression is Dupuis’ gift, the baritone choosing to impart meaning through subtle verbal inflection and tonal shading. The spaciousness and gentle insistence of his singing in Hahn’s L’Énamourée was one of the recital’s highlights, while Ravel’s still little-heard song cycle Trois chansons de Don Quichotte à Dulcinée allowed the baritone to demonstrate his gift for comedy, particularly in the closing drinking song.

Both singers took to the stage to give the world premiere of Kevin March’s La Noche Oscura, a duet written for them by the composer after Dupuis starred in his opera Les Feluettes. A setting of a 15th-century poem by Carmelite friar San Juan de la Cruz, it’s an enchanting depiction of a clandestine meeting of lovers, seeing Dupuis and Car sing in French and English respectively, voices weaving in and out of each other, before coming together in Spanish. A special moment, made more so by the composer’s presence.

They later returned to the stage for the duet Ah! Dite alle giovine from La Traviata, establishing the scene’s fraught dramatic context with ease. Car, who made her debut as Violetta for Opera Australia in 2018, presented the character’s torment in a voice of surpassing loveliness, while Dupuis was every bit the rueful but headstrong patriarch. Car had earlier sung a deeply felt Il ne revient pas from Gounod’s Faust, which seemed to transform anguish into exaltation, while Dupuis gave a noble account of Posa’s Per me giunto from Verdi’s Don Carlo.

Not wanting to disappoint the audience, they offered up two classy encores – Non ti scordar di me and the Waltz from Lehár’s Merry Widow. Those gathered would have kept them on for much longer if they could.

Nicole Car and Etienne Dupuis continue their tour to Melbourne Recital Centre on August 7, Canberra Theatre Centre on August 9, and QPAC, Brisbane on August 11