LENOX -- The baritone Gerard Souzay once wrote that his fellow Frenchmen "tend to take serious things lightly, while taking la fantaisie deeply to heart." He was thinking of French music, and especially French vocal music, which dances that fine line between jocular reverence and reverent jocularity. No one enjoyed that dance more than Francis Poulenc, for example, who often quoted St. Teresa of Avila ("I hate dull saints") and whose "Chansons Gaillardes" was a highlight of a recital at Tanglewood on Thursday night by bass-baritone José van Dam.
The Belgian singer was more somber than impudent, wearing the cardinal's hat more often than Pierrot's cap. Nevertheless, he delivered a fine and memorable master class in French melody of a sort that's rarely heard any more.
Van Dam has made his reputation mostly in operatic roles (Escamillo, Figaro, Golaud) and as a concert soloist, including Mephistopheles in Hector Berlioz's "Damnation de Faust," which he repeats tonight with the Boston Symphony and on its upcoming European tour. This recital, his first in Ozawa Hall, was a chance to show his skill in the miniature dramas of Gabriel Fauré, Henri Duparc, Claude Debussy, Jacques Ibert, and the naughty Poulenc.
While looking fit, tan, and considerably younger, van Dam will turn 67 on Aug. 25. That is an age when the Fates begin cutting the thread for singers. In the first set of songs by Fauré, it took him some time to warm up his once-magnificent upper register; he muffed a few words; "Mandoline" was sung without any cheek. But with the start of his second group, by Duparc, any cause for worry vaporized. In "L'Invitation au Voyage," the top came more easily; he found a sweet mezza voce, or half-voice, when he wanted; and his diction had more bite and gleam. And things only got better.
No one would call van Dam an effervescent singer. For someone who used to move around the stage so nimbly as Figaro, it was surprising to see him stand stiff as Richelieu through most of the evening. Nor does he have the warm colors of a Souzay to convey shades of emotion. Instead, he has intelligence, firm, round tone (when it's going), and style.
In Duparc's "Extase," sung almost entirely in half-voice, the hollowness in van Dam's tone actually worked to his advantage, as if this were a ghostly lover returning to his beloved. The shimmering colors in the piano, produced by the excellent, subdued Craig Rutenberg, played beautifully around the singer's dark monochrome.
In the second half of the program, van Dam was in more flexible voice, able to paint the subtle watercolors of Debussy's "Fêtes Galantes" (Second Set) and Ibert's flamenco-flavored songs for Don Quixote. These last were sung as beautifully as one remembered from his admirable recordings, but you wanted something physical, too: a vision of Dulcinée in his eyes, an air of self-importance. At the end of the death scene, the singer pulled out a perfect, soft, high E-natural -- how amazing it would have been if he had sung it on his knees!
Since Souzay, one will rarely hear Poulenc songs sung with such idiomatic ease. After an amusing "Bestiaire," the earlier song group, "Chansons Gaillardes," proved perfectly suited to van Dam's earnest vocal approach. The music, calmly beautiful, almost religious, here plays straight man to the ribald texts, 17th-century poems about the pleasures of the bed. The more reverently they are sung, the funnier these songs are. After "L'offrande," van Dam had a rare bit of fun, gazing heavenward with the expression of a choirboy who has broken wind. La fantaisie was served.