-The stance was familiar: legs rigidly astride, hands on hips and fingers splayed below the waist. Diminutive, with cropped hair and wearing a plain black dress, Raquel Bitton took center stage and re-created the imagery and the magic of the legendary French chanteuse Edith Piaf. Bitton, who discovered Piaf’s repertoire in 1982, has subsequently shaped and molded the material into a thrilling program of song that goes beyond imitation. Bitton infuses her performances with her own musical richness and instinctive sense of drama and storytelling.
The singer, accustomed to performing with a trio in small clubs, now has the luxury of a full concert orchestra, and her sold-out Carnegie Hall debut kicks off a six-city tour at major concert halls in the U.S. and Canada.
Linking the songs with a tastefully brief, informative and often amusing biographical narrative, Bitton follows Piaf’s career from her early years as a youthful Paris street singer and cabaret performer to world fame as an international concert artist.
While the program was sung almost entirely in French, the songs reflected the joy, pain and courage of the Little Sparrow with heartbreaking clarity. Bitton’s voice is bold and clear and lacks the familiar wobbly vibrato associated with Piaf.
“J’m’en fous pas mal” (“I Should Care”) had a bracing big-band swing sound accented by an infectious trumpet growl. Bitton noted Piaf’s first love affair — a one-night stand, actually — with the strident torch classic “Mon Legionnaire,” sang gypsy folklore with “Le Chemin des Forains,” and illustrated the lonely plight of ladies of the evening with “The Accordion Player.” These pieces, among others, were highlighted by flavorful period accordion and guitar accompaniment, the latter reflecting the shimmering innovative jazz structure of Django Reinhardt, who recorded with Piaf.
Out of the narrative arose bittersweet remembrances of Piaf’s friends and lovers, among whom were film star Marlene Dietrich, boxer Marcel Cerdan — who was tragically killed in a plane crash — and Jean Cocteau, the author and playwright who dreaded a world without Piaf, and succumbed on the same day as the singer in 1963.
The program, which included nearly two dozen selections, peaked with the all-too-familiar Piaf classics. The generous invitation of a streetwalker, “Milord,” was followed by “Under Paris Skies,” “Padam Padam,” “Hymne a l’amour” (familiarly called “If You Love Me, Really Love Me”) and the classic “Non je regrette rien” (I Have No Regrets).
The encore, as if we didn’t know, was the enduring “La Vie En Rose.” “Did you think I wouldn’t sing it?” purred the playful Bitton, who was overwhelmed by the capacity crowd, and thanked the brave patrons in the far reaches of the top balcony, adding, “You risked your life for me!”