Raquel Bitton | New York Times Review

New York Times Review

By ANN POWERS, New York City Times, Music Review

Sold out at Carnegie Hall
January 15, 2000

"`Edith Piaf': More Craft Than Pathos for the Little Sparrow "

Edith Piaf was a lightning rod. The artistry of this French chanteuse, who died in 1963 at 47, is obvious in her recordings, yet it has also been deeply distorted by the forces of myth. An emblem of so many things -- French patriotism, gritty urban spirit, show-biz survivalism and, most clichéd of all, romantic tragedy -- Piaf became symbolic not simply for channeling the passion of a people but for carefully defining that passion through her repertory and singing style.

The 38-year-old Raquel Bitton, who brought her tribute to Piaf to Carnegie Hall on Saturday night, served her subject by de-emphasizing the pathos in favor of the craft. Linking 26 songs with calm narration that recalled the pleasantly instructional tone of National Public Radio, Ms. Bitton, a Marrakesh-born, San Francisco-based cabaret singer, showed how Piaf used a hard-knock life as a sourcebook for the songs that made her a legend. Mentioning a hardship like Piaf's youthful poverty or the sudden death of her favorite lover, the boxer Marcel Cerdan, Ms. Bitton would offer a relevant selection. At other times she simply described the content of the mostly French lyrics so that the presumably mostly English-speaking audience could follow the sentiment.

The real insights came in the artful arrangements for small orchestra, by Bob Holloway, and in Ms. Bitton's vocals themselves, which honored Piaf's style without strictly imitating it. The younger singer has a lighter tone and a more distanced theatricality; she carefully borrowed touchstones, like Piaf's sharp diction and rousing way with a chorus, that illuminated the late singer's intelligence more than her emotionality. She showed how the singer's sharp timbre and guttural R's became a trademark, like Louis Armstrong's genial growl, that signified plebeian earthiness while actually rising archly above it.

Ms. Bitton, whose own repertory extends beyond Piaf to include a wider swath of French chanson, did well to concentrate on the great singer as a virtuoso rather than a heroine. No one could live up to a legend so inflated, but a bright interpreter like Ms. Bitton certainly can illuminate it.


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