Performances on the Rue Pigalle were presumably at times rather challenging, even for the great Edith Piaf; and Nadja Filtzer certainly shared some artistic barricades while taking us on her existentialist and interpretative tour of the legendary singer’s life and works.
Overall a beautifully-sung and acted performance from Filtzer
The thin wooden walls of the Bosco theatre do not provide adequate sound-proofing against a capacity Spiegeltent Bank Holiday-fuelled crowd and an on-edge Filtzer and musicians struggled throughout to create the intimacy needed to do justice to the concept.
The audience, though, were on-side after hearing the beauty in Filtzer’s voice during the opening Sous le ciel de Paris. Piaf impersonation this is not, and anyone wanting raw brute power and endlessly held notes will be disappointed, but this is more than compensated by silken smooth vocals and delicate but confident phrasing. Vocally, all is excellent. Nimble accompaniment was provided on the first night by an excellent accordionist and double-bassist, with numbers like La Foule really showing off their dexterity and sense of timing.
Filtzer, interweaving her own persona with Piaf’s, tells us La Môme’s story in broadly linear form, from the Paris back-streets to the obligatory Non, je ne regret rien finale. She sings in both French and English, with an occasional not-unpleasant glint of a Dutch accent. Most of the French songs are prefaced with an English summary or first verse, making the stories very accessible and a good introduction to those who don’t know the repertoire well. All the songs which you would expect to punctuate Piaf’s life are here, and it was great also to hear some lesser-known works. In contrast to Piaf’s rigid style, Filtzer, in her own distinct interpretation, really acts out each song, moving elegantly around the stage. We felt her love for the doomed Marcel Cerdan in La Vie en Rose, and shared her despair at his death in Ne Me Quitte Pas. Bolshiness came through in Milord, while L'Accordéoniste showed us vulnerability, although, as in Padam, more could have been made of the power of music to push a soul over the edge.
Filtzer narrates largely by means of responding to a series of recorded voices. Some of these are unidentified, and speak of memories and dreams to both Filtzer and Filtzer-as-Piaf, while some help pinpoint time and place, such as Louis Leplée securing Piaf her first shows. At times this becomes confusing, especially when the voices are talking to each other, and one felt that the underlying concept didn’t quite get across. Various props and pieces of knitting don’t add much, either. The musicians are roped in to set up some of the scenes, but seemed excruciatingly embarrassed to be doing so, and also weren’t miked, which made these parts inaudible and fall flat.
The venue was ill-suited, with background noise of course beyond the production’s control, but more could have been done with lighting and staging to create more focused atmosphere and intimacy, and to avoid Filtzer awkwardly referring behind her to the musicians. A couple of Jacques Brel numbers from Bosco resident Benjamin Blake were well-sung and received, but added little to the story. A bit more polish will no doubt come over the next few performances.
Overall a beautifully-sung and acted performance from Filtzer, worth the price of the ticket, but one which would have shone much brighter without a battle against surroundings, direction, and staging.