From the first, Ute Lemper grabs you and holds you in the palm of her hand the whole night long. And, let’s face it, the Concert Hall of the Sydney Opera House, whatever else it may be, isn’t exactly an intimate space, or a natural-born one, for cabaret. Yet this lanky, lean, sinewy, 50-year-old German woman has ways of making you not talk. Of holding you spellbound. Much of the time, it’s as if she’s singing to you. Only you. And nobody but you. She steals her way around the stage, like a panther (I might’ve said cougar, if not for the current idiom attached to it); or snow leopard, perhaps. Lithe, elegant, poised.
Thanks to her, the Weimar era has never quite ended; though, happily, the political ideology and pressures which set it in train substantially have. But there’s much more to this streak of genius than the provocative 1930s songs that have, in large measure, made her name.
The mainstay of this concert was a song cycle based on the love poems of Chilean Nobel Prize-winner Pablo Neruda (the pen name of Neftali Basoalto, who was also a diplomat), from her new album, Forever, which has a release this month, well ahead of the rest of the world, on her home turf, in Germany, but also down under, where she first played the opera house twenty years ago. The concept and 12 songs are hers. It’s a project which consumed her for a year, in which compositions took shape on aircraft, at home in the evening; essentially, whenever and wherever she had a moment’s pause. The exquisite result is informed by her literary, musical and emotional inspiration from and investment in the likes of Brel, Piaf, Weill, the lesser-known Leo Ferre, Piazolla and Joni Mitchell, who, when you come to think about it, as Lemper obviously has, fits, surprisingly perhaps, but superbly into such company.
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Neruda is, of course, a romantic figure, having suffered the very unromantic, ignominious fate of being involuntarily exiled, in 1949, by Pinochet. Whether Pinochet did awe with him or, as is rumoured, an ex-CIA agent, we may never know. But we do know that, by 1973, he was murdered; most probably poisoned. There’s no real question: his biographical backdrop brings even more pathos to the work, which is already imbued with the impacts of politics, as well as more personal passions.
Lemper, or this project, wouldn’t be wholly Lemper, without the six musicians she has in train, who bring exemplary instrumental and, I believe, arranging skills. There seems to be real rapport and respect between them; a musical intimacy that almost reflects the intimacy of the poems. It was Marcelo Nisinman, an Argentinian bandoneon player and composer, who, some years ago now, first whet her appetite for Latin American poetry. And she’s been captivated ever since.
For the occasion, the concert hall stage was sequentially bathed in semi-sombre blue, green and purple hues, into which the chanteuse strides languidly, casting a long shadow; as enigmatic, glamorous and untouchable as Garbo, attired in gowns that only but emphasise her stature, to sing what can sometimes be wordy poems, ‘though La Nuit Dans L’ile seems exceptional, with a raw, spare quality to it, an almost verbal asceticism, yet with each word holding immense power.
The night on the island.
All night I slept with you near the sea, on the island. Wild and sweet, you were, between pleasure and sleep, between fire and water.
Lemper’s voice holds immense power as well, every drop of which she harnesses. Hers is a very considerable instrument, shaped as much by her jazz-rock origins as her transformations into an actor, star of musicals and more. She is clearly influenced by black blues singers, often sounding as much Aretha as Marlene.
The very moment we hear the first swells of bandoneon, we’re transported to Latin America and our hearts begin to pound. This instrument, perhaps more than any other, creates an atmosphere which welcomes Neruda’s lyrics. But it’s not just the lyrics that rouse: lest we underestimate this facet of her diamond-like talent, Lemper is an surpassingly gifted composer. This is evidenced in the 11 or 12 songs she gave us before interval; not least in The Saddest Poem, in which she showcases a husky timbre that alternates with silken smoothness: Eartha Kitt meets Bassey, via Joni. It’s a rendition emblematic of her profound vocal versatility and the eclectic palette from which she paints. Interestingly, this particular tune is really more about the percussive and textural effects than the words, sometimes, ironically, relegated to second place. Pity.
The further irony is that this song sounds in no way sad. Tormented. Tortured. Sure. But not sad. For mine, there’s something very reminiscent of a sixties rock ballad about it. Then again, if we accept Neruda’s poem as the starting-point, but also that Lemper has arrived at an entirely different finishing point, given that both shine, both are worthy in their own right. Besides, it’s a song cycle, so this song must be regarded in the context of the others.
This exquisite garland of settings for Neruda’s poems would stand as an intensely fulfilling and memorable concert experience in its own right, yet Lemper gave us more. After an interval just long enough to cool our now fevered brows and catch our breath, she presented a kind of ‘best of’ set.
There were numerous winners on the night. Respectful homage was paid to jazz, the blues, chanson, Weimar, Neruda, progressive rock and Latin music. Lemper and her indispensable ensemble do all justice; more than that, they’ve a collective Midas touch. The woman herself exudes passion from every pore. Everything she presents is underpinned by a critical intelligence. Everything she writes is brave and inventive; influences and inspirations are discernible and fully acknowledged, but she well-and-truly transcends mere pastiche, with unpredictable changes of direction and mood. Vocally and compositionally, there’s a wildness about her. A latent and often unleashed desire to surprise; manifest in a mature yearning to challenge expectations, rather than shock for it’s own sake. One moment she’s mimicking a trumpet; the next channelling the likes of Bessie Smith. She’s Edith, or Marlene, or Janis. Or a trumpet. She’s Rubik’s cube, though not nearly as square.
It’s almost enough to forgive her for appearing in the irredeemably dreadful Cats. Almost.
The details: Ute Lemper played the Concert Hall, Sydney Opera House on September 23.