Raquel Bitton | Chicao Orchestra Hall

Chicago Tribune Review

Raquel Bitton at Orchestra Hall

by Howard Reich, Chicago Tribune, Tribune Arts Critic, August 21, 2000

What a pro! When the microphone broke down during Raquel Bitton's Orchestra Hall debut over the weekend, she hardly flinched. While technicians tried to figure out what went wrong, Bitton wended her way through the orchestra, shaking hands with some instrumentalists, hugging and kissing others. And when an unidentified official offered to escort her offstage during the fiasco, Bitton proclaimed: "I'm not going anywhere -- I'm staying right here," earning the first of several ovations. It was a moment worthy of Edith Piaf, the immortal chanteuse who was the subject of this one-night-only show, "Raquel Bitton Sings Edith Piaf: Her Story . . . Her Songs." Like the great Piaf, Bitton is small but feisty, unwilling to concede defeat under any circumstances.

In fact, Bitton's portrait of Piaf runs counter to conventional views, which tend to portray "the little sparrow" as a victim of her unfortunate circumstances. Born literally on the streets of Paris, raised amid prostitution and left to fend for herself early in life, Piaf died at the age of 47.

Raquel Bitton

Yet to Bitton, Piaf is neither a doomed woman nor a character to be pitied. On the contrary, Bitton views Piaf as a noble figure who transcended her pain, creating an art that speaks to listeners nearly four decades after her death. Ultimately, Bitton gave the memory of Piaf the respect it deserves, acknowledging the misfortunes of Piaf's life but focusing on what matters most: Piaf's artistry. Above all, Bitton did so through the musicianship she applied to vivid re-interpretations of Piaf's repertoire. Uninterested in simply mimicking a legendary singer, Bitton found individual ways of performing this music, yet she produced the impetuous phrases and often accelerating tempos that have come to define this style of singing. So Piaf's famous recordings seemed almost incidental to this evening, in which Bitton approached Piaf's music from a crisply contemporary perspective. But by trying to capture the spirit and the fervor of Piaf's art, rather than its most obvious mannerisms, Britton came closer to the essence of Piaf's world than mere impersonators could.

It's Bitton's good fortune that she commands a reedy alto ideally suited to the music of Jacques Prevert and Henri Alexandre Contet, among other Piaf songwriters. Neither very large nor particularly plush, Bitton's instrument never really called attention to itself. Instead, it served the song lyrics, which are paramount in this music. Though lesser Piaf interpreters bring a sameness of delivery to much of the singer's repertory, Bitton made a distinct character study of each vignette. So there was plenty of Parisian atmosphere in "L'Accordeoniste" ("The Accordionist"), which Bitton dispatched with swirling waltz rhythm; a haunting mixture of comedy and tragedy in "Bravo pour le clown" ("Bravo to the Clown"); and a stirringly operatic delivery in "Je suis a toi" ("I Am Yours").

Though Piaf interpreters typically appear with a single pianist or small ensemble, Bitton sang in front of an orchestra of strings, horns, rhythm section and -- to great effect -- accordion and guitar. The orchestral setting deepened the impact of these songs, while Bob Holloway's shimmering arrangements and Bill Keck's sensitive conducting rendered this evening much more than a one-woman show. Yet the performance proved bittersweet, for Bitton was not well served by the evening's production, the aforementioned microphone disaster representing just part of the problem. In addition, the house was kept so dark that many audience members struggled to read the program booklet containing song titles and some English translation. Worse, the famously troubled acoustics of the refurbished Orchestra Hall made horn solos sound as if they were being played in an echo chamber. Bitton, a definitive Piaf interpreter, deserved better.

The small woman in the unadorned black velvet dress who stood in the spotlight at Symphony Center on Saturday night was not Edith Piaf. But if you closed your eyes and listened to Raquel Bitton's clarion voice--a voice imbued with the impeccably rolled consonants of a native French speaker and marked by the distinctive timbre that might suggest a lifetime of cheap red wine, smokey bistros, worn hotel rooms and cobblestone streets--you could feel the presence of the woman they called "The Little Sparrow."

The Moroccan-born, San Francisco-based Bitton, who has taken what began as a cabaret act and expanded it into a full concert performance, may be more solidly built than Piaf, and less overtly vulnerable. But whether belting out the ferocious climax of "The Accordion Player," "Bravo to the Clown" and "Milord," or keening with the bittersweet sorrows of love and loss in "You're So Handsome You Know" and "Someone Like Me," she was able to conjure the thrilling sound and emotional fire of the singer who died in 1963 at age 47, and who continues to embody the romance of Paris. Backed by a 20-piece orchestra of Chicago musicians, led by her musical director Bill Keck, Bitton, who sang mostly in French, was at ease with the stylish, sometimes jazzy arrangements by Bob Holloway that were well-tuned to Piaf's era. She created a phenomenal vocal echo of Piaf without sinking into outright ventriloquism--a trick that doesn't leave much room for personal interpretation, but clearly had Piaf fans swooning.

Bitton conveyed the right mix of raw, anthemlike indomitability and lushly lyrical cries of the heart. Somewhat less successful was Bitton's effort to give a structure to the two dozen songs on the program by making them hooks for a sketchy biography of the singer. Perhaps if a more subtle and fluent writer had crafted the script, her many little anecdotes would seem less forced. But as it now stands, the cliches in the narrative are a bit grating, even if Piaf's life--her illegitimate birth to a drug-addicted mother and penniless street performer father, her youth in her grandmother's bordello, her temporary blindness, her meteoric rise from street singer to international star, her tragic love affairs--have all the elements of the grandest melodrama.

The most effective lead-ins were those in which Bitton simply set the stage for the song in English, providing a bit of the storyline or a few lines of translation of the essential lyrics. And the songs soared--from the vampy start and surprising afterward of "My Legionnaire," and the forceful "The Gypsy's Path," to the Peruvian-influenced "La Foule," with its lovely guitar accompaniment. Bitton's performance of "I Am Yours" was heart-wrenching; her rendition of the life-pulsing "Padam Padam" was wholly thrilling. Like Piaf, Bitton can suggest both the fragile, bruised lover and the plucky survivor.

Early in the evening, plagued by a malfunctioning microphone that required several very long minutes to replace, she charmed a full house with her banter, and with her impromptu decision to shake hands with each of the musicians in her first-rate orchestra. A less confident performer might easily have been thrown off-kilter or erupted in anger, but Bitton seemed charged up by the incident. And the crowd loved her for it.

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