Friday, November 15, 2019

Douglas Messerli | "Frozen in a Bed of Chance" (on Julia Migenes performance of French chansons, Le Vie en Rose, at Odyssey Theatre Ensemble)


frozen in a bed of chance
by Douglas Messerli

Julia Migenes Le Vie en Rose / Directed by Peter Medak, Odyssey Theatre Ensemble / the performance I saw was on Thursday, November 14, 2019

At some point in her performances of French chansons last evening, opera singer, theater performer, and Grammy winner Julia Migenes revealed that if she were to perform all of her most-loved chansons, we might be in the Odyssey Theatre space for at least 4 days.
      I might actually have loved to do that, hearing a world that has only been revealed to me previously by a handful of records. And Migenes’ incredible soprano voice and her French-language intonations were so perfect that, along with her very deep knowledge of the genre, it might have been so revelatory that it would have completely altered concepts in the US of the depth and range of what is now generally perceived a lovely, almost chanted, but not incredibly important songs of love and loss in Paris. And I’m particularly sad to hear that this is her final musical tour, representing her retirement from singing in general.

     Consequently, I feel honored to have been able to hear her sing last night works from several of the most noted singers of chansons, including works by Maurice Yvain, Georges Moustaki, Léo Ferré, Francis Lai, Michel Legrand sung by noted singers such as Edith Piaf, Charles Aznovour, Jacques Brel and others.
      The red-haired beauty not only interprets these with great finesse, but provides her audience with a short-course about who the composers and singers were: the fact that Piaf, for instance, had begun her career as a street-singer, in a sense a kind of prostitute, which helps us comprehend why she might, in her song “Milord,” wish to invite it a man, addressing him with honor in order to lure him to her table:

                        Come on my Lord
                        Sit at my table
                        It’s so cold outside
                        Here is so comfortable
                        Let yourself be, Milord
                        And take your ease
                        Your sorrows on my heart
                        And your feet on a chair
                        I know you, Milord
                        Your never saw me
                        I am only a girl from the port
                        A shadow of the street

      Or why the popular singer Mistinguett, drowned in Ostrich feathers she and her male dancers wore, might wish to sing the sad now well-known English-language version of “Mon Homme,” made popular her by Billy Holliday and, later, Barbara Streisand:

                         Oh, my man I love him so
                         He’ll never know
                         All my life is just despair
                         But I don’t care
                         When he takes me in his arms
                         The world is bright, all right
                         What’s the difference if I say
                          I’ll go away, When I know
                          I’ll come back on my knees some day?

     Migenes not only explains these songs, singing them with great reverence, but shows us pictures of the composers on the covers. She even threatened, quite hilariously, to have appeared as did Mistinguett, in Ostrich feathers, but she might also need ten or more male dances, lots of feathers, and net stocking up to her waist, along with a bustier. As lovely as Migenes is, it is hard to imagine her in such a costume.
      The great singer even gives us glimpses of her own operatic career in Austria singing Lulu, a nearly impossible score with the singers move in different registers and directions from the orchestra, and, after her on-stage murder by Jack the Ripper, enjoying a kind of decompression by hearing the The Doobie Brothers, whom she brilliantly compares to the music of Charles Aznavour, who, she insists, so compacted his lyrics that he left the rest of the lyrical passages just for the musicians. She sang two songs by Aznavour—an early supporter of the LBGT community—whose “Hier Encore” notes:

                      Yesterday still, I was twenty, I was wasting time
                      Believing to stop it
                      And to hold him back, even ahead of him
                      I just ran out of breath
                      Ignoring the past, conjugating in the future
                      I preceded from me any conversation
                      And gave my opinion that I wanted the good
                      To criticize the world casually

     Time, obviously, is a major issue in these chansons, particularly in the music of Ferrè, whose son “Avec Le Temps” begins with a lament on how “With time goes everything goes away / We forget the face and we forget the voice. The heart when it beats more / It’s not worth going further / You have to let it go and that’s fine.” It sounds a bit like Alzheimer’s disease to me.
      Oddly, Migenes is particularly brilliant singing the male-composed love songs such as the endlessly chain-smoking Jacques Brel’s “Les Paumés du Petit Martin” and “La Chanson des Vieux Amant,” followed by her excellent pianist Victoria H. Kirsch’s lovely piano rendition, as Migenes temporarily leaves the stage, of one of his standards.
       Her last song, Michel Legrand and Jacques Demy’s grand paen to love from The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, reiterates just how time is at the center of the French chansons.

                       If it takes forever I will wait for you
                       For a thousand summers I will wait for you
                       Till you’re here beside me, till I’m touching you
                       And forevermore sharing your love.

        For any of us who has seen the film, however, know, the singer does not wait for her lover, who’s been sent off into the French military. She marries a wealthy suitor instead of waiting for her gasoline-station owner-lover. Love in these songs is always a thing of chance, a fleeting glance as Francis Lai and Pierre Barouh suggest in “A Man and a Woman.”
       In performing these iconic and often ironic songs, Migenes, with director Peter Medak, has indeed taken a chance that might help you fall in love with the French chant-songs. I’ll never hear any of them again in the same way.

Los Angeles, November 15, 2019
Reprinted from USTheater, Opera, and Performance (November 2019).                    

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