Utter the word cabaret and chances are it will evoke a stream of associations such as Liza Minelli in Bob Fosse’s 1972 film classic by the same name or Edith Piaf and her tragic life as a World War II–era chanteuse and operative within the French resistance.
My thoughts immediately fly to America’s derivative of that torch song tradition — the speakeasies, “Joe sent me” and Helen Morgan, the iconic singer whom my own grandmother toured with as a dancer during Morgan’s post-Showboat days before grandma retired from the stage to marry a jazz clarinetist from Cincinnati.
But one doesn’t tend to associate the critically acclaimed mezzo-soprano and vocal powerhouse Stephanie Blythe with the musical descendants of Paris’ Chat Noir.
Yet Blythe and her expressive pianist Warren Jones performed a recital of both art song and cabaret hits on Saturday evening at Clayton State University’s Spivey Hall.
Blythe is known for her ability to execute meaty operatic roles such as Azucena in Il Trovatore and Ulrica in Un Ballo in Maschera. She can pull off Wagner’s most formidable Fricka, goddess of marriage, in Das Rheingold and Die Walküre. It was thus all the more thrilling to hear her close the evening at Spivey with Noël Coward ballads like “Mad About The Boy” and “Nina,” songs that she comically described as “thirsty work,” taking sips from her glass of water intermittently.
It was a paradigm shift worth experiencing. Blythe sang the songs of five composers, spanning Francis Poulenc to Coward with Léo Ferré, Jacques Brel and Benjamin Britten peppered in between.
Composed in 1925, the Poèmes du Ronsard is one of Poulenc’s earliest attempts at song. A year earlier the magazine La Révue musicale had commissioned a number of important French composers — Ravel, Dukas, Honegger, etc. — to write songs to texts by sixteenth-century poet Pierre de Ronsard; it was a faction that did not include Poulenc.
He rebelled by composing five songs of his own and selected several Ronsard poems including “Je n’ai plus que les os” that linger on the theme of old age and death, something that Poulenc had no experience with at the tender age of 26. Blythe’s interpretation at Spivey was larger than life — a wash of resonant sound that was neither feminine nor masculine in nature — and simply stunning. Her voice filled every crevice and corner of the hall, shocking our senses.
It was then that the homage to cabaret began with the songs of the mid-century chansonnier Léo Ferré (1916–93). While Ferré was a poet in his own right, he also set the texts of Baudelaire, Verlaine and Apollinaire. Blythe and Jones gave us two songs of Baudelaire, “La Vie Antérieure” and “L’invitation au voyage.”
Many classical music fans will be familiar with the Duparc settings of these poems, and while the Ferré interpretations could be characterized as neo-Romantic popular music, they were equally moving. His “L’invitation au voyage” is set in 6/8 as the Duparc version, but is not as dark. Blythe aptly portrayed the song with a frivolous, lighthearted nature.
Just before intermission, Blythe earned a standing ovation with her rendition of Brel’s “Amsterdam.” Brel (1929–79) and Piaf are often mentioned in the same breath and credited with launching the French cabaret style to international recognition. The third in a song group that included “Le pieds dans le ruisseau” and the unmistakable “Ne me quitte pas,” “Amsterdam” was a tour de force. Here Blythe gave us a different and riveting vocalism, belting sans vibrato as she described the lusty sailors who sing, sleep and die at the port of Amsterdam.
But which song was the real pièce de résistance of the evening aside from “Amsterdam”? Arguably, it was the alarmingly funny “Singing in the Bathtub” from the Warner Brothers’ film Show of Shows. At the conclusion of the evening, it was clear that Blythe had proven that she doesn’t just play a goddess on the operatic stage. She really is one.