I am intrigued by the chanteuse Barbara because she is one of those musical icons adored by the French (and pretty much no one else), along with Johnny Hallyday, Serge Gainsbourg and Claude François. I find this idolatry far more understandable in her case than in theirs.
Although I wasn’t a big fan of the film Barbara by Mathieu Almaric, it piqued my interest in her music, so when I heard about a concert of her songs by singer Agnès Sighicelli and pianist Patrick Rouquet, winners of a competition sponsored by the Paris Philharmonic, I went along to see it.
Barbara (1930-97; née Monique Andrée Serf) was tall and svelte, with short, jet-black hair and strikingly beautiful features: dark eyes, high cheekbones, an aquiline nose and a generous mouth. An air of mystery and tragedy was intensified by her black clothing and the smoke of cigarettes and theatrical fog machines that always seemed to envelop her.
In spite of her great success, she was a troubled woman, deeply and understandably scarred by two major traumas endured during her childhood: being Jewish, she and her family had to go into hiding during the Occupation of France, and she was sexually abused by her father (who later abandoned his family).
She sang her own poetic and often biographical songs in a haunted and haunting style that can quickly bring many a French man or woman (see Mathieu Almaric in the abovementioned film) to tears.
Sighicelli and Rouquet have put together a show that strings Barbara’s songs together with a minimal mise-en-scène. Musically, the show is a success, with both singer and pianist performing admirably. The mise-en-scène, however, fails to either inform the audience about the singer’s life (I suppose they assume that everyone already knows all about it) or provide effective transitions between the songs.
Although the fog machine was pumping away throughout the show, it didn’t manage to re-create the emotional atmosphere of Barbara’s performances. The costumes also failed to participate in the stage magic: both performers appeared to be wearing their street clothes. A tuxedo for the pianist and something slinky for the singer would have been in order.
With just a few adjustments – Sighicelli noted at the end of the show that the mise-en-scène was a work in progress – this could be a fine introduction to Barbara for those who don’t know her and a nostalgic thrill for those who do.