The Fortuna Spiegletent provided the perfect environment for this stylishly performed homage to Edith Piaf. Vocalist, songwriter, cabaret performer and film actress, Piaf was universally regarded as France’s greatest popular singer.
A diminutive figure, Piaf lived to sing, baring her soul to her audiences. Her songs told stories, mostly of tragic love, of a legionnaire killed in battle after a one-night stand, of young lovers who chose death rather than separation. Known as “the little sparrow”, by the time she died of liver cancer at the age of 48, Piaf had become one of the most celebrated performing artists of the 20th century.
This meticulously researched cabaret, superbly performed by Michaela Burger and guitarist, Greg Wain, provides an absorbing insight into the life and career of Piaf, but only hints as to why the memory of Piaf has endured through the years.
Burger is also diminutive. At 4’11” she is only an inch taller than Piaf. Her stage presence and story-telling skills are engaging. She effortlessly conjures up the myriad characters important to the recounting of Piaf’s life and career, singing and speaking in immaculate French and English.
Her singing voice is more polished than Piaf’s, but she is able to capture the passion and that peculiar timbre and delivery immediately recognisable as Piaf’s. However, although she sometimes speaks Piaf’s words, and occasionally adopts Piaf’s signature mannerisms, her’s is not an impersonation as much as an impression to conjure up the essence of Edith Piaf.
The musical arrangements for the show are not reproductions of those sung by Piaf, rather re-imaginings of the songs, incorporating jazz rhythms and a looping device which allows Burger to sing harmonies with herself. For La Vie en Rose, she sings directly into an acoustic guitar to create an eerie other-worldly sound.
All Piaf’s most popular songs, L’Accordeoniste, Mon Legionnaire, Autumn Leaves, Mon Dieu and Padam Padam are included, and throughout Burger is impeccably accompanied on guitar by Greg Wain.
However Piaf’s songs are principally story songs, songs of drama and passion, and the jazz arrangements, the looping and other innovations, as musically interesting and clever as they are, distract from the lyrics, and in the case of Hymne a L’Amour, even the mood, thereby seriously diluting the essential drama of the songs, negating the very quality that made Piaf’s performances so memorable.
The Fortuna Spiegeltent, Civic Square, Canberra
Performance: Thursday 18 April 2019
Image: Michaela Burger and Greg Wain star in Exposing Edith (supplied)
Review: Bill Stephens OAM