A Resonant Homage from Patricia Kaas, A Living Diva, to Edith Piaf, A Legend: Two Voices, Two Destinies

Nelida Nassar  08.12.2013

During a gorgeous starry evening, Patricia Kaas, France’s biggest international pop, cabaret and jazz star, appeared again after a nineteen years absence to conclude the 2013 Beiteddine International Art Festival – while marking a year-long world tour that started in London in November 2012, commemorating the 50th anniversary of the legendary Edith Piaf’s death. After a career that began in 1987 and nearly 20 million LP sales, and in preparation for the tour, Kaas listened and retained 21 of her favorite songs from the 435 recorded by Piaf’s, including several that audiences might find surprising. 

The Polish composer Abel Korzeniowski, the new Hollywood darling and disciple of maestro Krysztof Penderecki, responsible for the haunting score of Tom Ford’s film A Single Man, orchestrated the “comédie recital”’s songs, with some also rearranged by the electro funk and boogie generation of the likes of Windkid.

Kaas is fully aware that taking on The Little Sparrow was a huge challenge, in her words “there was no way to better her,” so she aimed to give a different interpretation, trying to reflect her emotions with a new twist by telling Piaf’s story through her songs. Kaas’s rendition shone a light on Piaf’s and her life. She did not want to incarnate the legend, but rather pay homage and tribute to the singer with whom she shared similarities such as humble roots and difficult beginnings.

Kaas’s distinctive voice, that is smokier, throatier and slightly deeper than Piaf’s, made it clear from the onset that the show was hers. Kneeling on the stage with a video clip screening a church’s stained glass behind her, she intoned Oh! Mon Dieu. Kaas was determined to give a theatrical aspect to the show, that was carefully choreographed and produced. It featured dancing by Kaas and Kevin Mischel, a contemporary dancer and mime. Their duet in La Vie En Rose, beautifully acrobatic, is noteworthy. Theatricality and mime were direct references to Piaf’s father and to her Moroccan maternal grandfather, that were both acrobats.

The multimedia part of the show interspersed various elements with the songs: – with a special nod to Piaf’s good friend Jean Cocteau’s play Le Bel Indifférent – and films, images and photographs of Piaf – of the 30th and 40th streets of Paris, the Paris Olympia’s gilded ceiling among many others, some of which had never been seen before. All this was broadcast on the screen behind Kaas.

Accompanied by Fred Hélbert at multiple instruments (also at the computer for the orchestra), pianist Jonny Dyke and violinist Nicolas Stevens, Kass performed several of the less known lyrics she had selected including Les Blues Blanches, T’es Beau, Tu Sais and Avec Ce Soleil, that lend themselves to greater theatricality. Avec Ce Soleil  is about the angst of a teenage love. It was followed by La Belle Histoire d’Amour, written just after the death of Marcel Cerdan, the boxer who was the love of Piaf’s life. The song resonates with the strength and sadness of Piaf trying to live and love on, yet finding it impossible to let go of this love.

The introduction to Milord displayed clips of both Kaas and the legendary actor Alain Delon on the screen. If appealing, the video was unashamedly over the top. Korzeniowski created audacious musical settings in Milord instead of the spry and jolly cabaret style. He slowed the piece down, transposing it to a minor key that gave it a darker meaning. Padam… Padam… was another highlight, but the acoustic was wobbly at times, and it was difficult to hear the throb of the music.

Kaas also sang to a pre-recorded backing track composed earlier by Korzeniowski, which, at times, left the performance a little rigid. The arrangements, though lush and well executed, often played in an emotional, operatic way, threading through the scores of identical thematic passages of music. The open space at Beiteddine did nothing to help either; at times it was impossible to hear the violin.

Kaas concluded her show with a standing tribute to Piaf. She reappeared in a beautiful white swan-like dress to sing the unforgettable Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien. Despite calls for encore, she did not return to the stage.

The elaborate show at Beiteddine, which lasted one hour and fifty minutes, seemed too loose. It stretched between moments of beautiful focused theatrical singing and dancing and slow spells. If Piaf’s determination to give her all to any of her listener was a leitmotiv of her final years until exhaustion, Kaas’s communion with the audience was undoubtedly different. The diva did not display that same determination and expression of emotions as the legend. Kaas’s fans were of two groups, steadfast adoring ones cheered her for several minutes, while the others yearned for more, missing Piaf’s hits such as La Fille De Joie Est Triste (L’Accordéoniste), or Mon Manège à Moi. If the show was semantically and musically intriguing, one felt that Kaas might have not been at her top vocal shape.

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