By Marilyn Lester . . .
FIAF, the French Institute-Alliance Française, has conceived a delightful three-part series, Love, Desire & Mystery—Il Parle, Elle Chante, with Broadway actress-singer, Melissa Errico, pianist Tedd Firth and writer and lyricist, Adam Gopnik. The idea is to explore each of these concepts as expressed in French culture, though song and narrative. Or, as FIAF puts it, to “illuminate the cycle that France first offered the world—of how love becomes desire, how desire is cloaked in mystery, and how then the mystery of desire reveals the madness of love again.” The result is pure enjoyment for Francophiles and non-Francophiles alike. The easy chemistry between Errico, Gopnik and Firth is a delight—it’s the kind of warm collaboration that makes you feel cozily at home on their welcoming turf.
Love, Desire & Mystery—Il Parle, Elle Chante is much like a themed cabaret show, only with the luxury of more time to develop the concept. The mix proves successful, not only because of the talent involved, but because the proportion of music to text has been carefully calculated to keep the pace dynamic. Additionally, Gopnik is interesting in his own right—he’s an accomplished speaker with a relaxed, casual, yet energetic delivery. More than that, his creative thoughts have substance. He proposed, for instance that listeners imagine themselves late at night in a cozy basement boite in Paris, listening to a chanteuse and her accompanist, with an aging novelist at the next table. Gopnik should know; he was the Paris correspondent for The New Yorker from 1995 to 2000 and the magazine’s art critic for eight years before that.
To begin the program, Errico dove into the pool of Desire feet first, with Michel Legrand’s “His Eyes, Her Eyes” (lyrics by Alan and Marilyn Bergman), a tune that musically defines desire perhaps like no other. Legrand featured prominently in the program; he not only mentored Errico, but she’s probably now the most important and foremost interpreter of his work. That work, over a lifetime of prolific composing (he died in January 2019 at age 86), covered all the bases of desire. Ruminating about tragic desire, she sang, in French and English, his “I Will Wait for You” (French lyrics by Jacques Demy, English by Norman Gimbel.) But for the ultimate in tragedy, when desire is transformed into mourning, it was to Edith Piaf, whom Gopnik termed “the oracle of desire,” that the program turned. The song was “L’Hymne à L’Amour,” which Piaf wrote with Marguerite Monnot as a gift for the love of her life, French boxer Marcel Cerdan. Not long after Piaf debuted the song, Cerdan died tragically in a plane crash.
On a more upbeat note, the pair discoursed on desire via the French lens of lifestyle and art, notably couture and gastronomic delights, through which, as Gopnik put it, desire can be commodified. To illustrate this point, on fashion, Errico sang from the Broadway show, Coco, “A Brand New Dress” (André Previn/Alan Jay Lerner). For cuisine, the duo turned to Gopnik’s own musical Our Table, in which Errico starred, and the song “Make Menus”(music by David Shire). But it was on an unlikely entry into the mix of Desire’s numbers that Errico particularly shone: Joni Mitchell’s “Rainy Night House.” This folk-based story song showcased Errico’s vocal flexibility, from low notes to those at the very top, which she sang with precision and clarity. Add to this talent, excellent and reliable story-telling chops, with an animated delivery that brings the work alive. Before playing out on an emotive “The Way He Makes Me Feel” (Legrand/Alan and Marilyn Bergman), Gopnik suggested that now that dawn was breaking it was time to leave the boite and re-emerge into the beautiful daylight of Paris. It was the perfect ending to a delightful French evening.
Much credit for the success of Desire goes to pianist-arranger Tedd Firth who revealed another aspect of his prodigious talents—that of composer. He and songwriter Sarah Rebell wrote for this occasion, “The Face I Knew,” a beautiful art song based on Marguerite Duras’ autobiographical novel, The Lover. The passion infused into the composition is akin to the dynamism that Firth brings to his playing. He’s a remarkable presence at the keyboard with his creative and sensitive musicianship, which understandably makes him the go-to for many vocalists in the business.
Love, Desire & Mystery—Il Parle, Elle Chante, continues on May 6, 2021 with the last part of the series. Tickets HERE