Madame Piaf

Throughout her life, Édith Piaf never shied away from the naked truth. Those who were never wrapped in cotton wool themselves are not prone to transfiguration. In her new programme “Madame Piaf”, Marie Giroux approaches the diva as she herself would have done: relentlessly and unpretentiously – but with much more charm and humour than Piaf herself was able to radiate.

And it hardly needs more than Giroux’s introduction to guess that here a French chanson singer is immersing herself in the life of another, much more famous chanson singer in a thoroughly surprising way to present the other, lesser-known side of Piaf. “I have sagging breasts and a small, flat bottom,” Giroux quotes Piaf right at the beginning, “but I get the men anyway.”

In a conservative black costume, she leans casually against the grand piano. She winks at the phrase with her left eye. Her whole face smiles amidst the long wild blonde curls. She is clearly taller than Édith Piaf once was at 1.47 metres. And the fact that Giroux, actually a mezzo-soprano, is not describing herself with this sentence is easily recognised at first glance. The evenings that promise a homage to the great Édith Piaf usually play out in the predictable realm – a round of often sad songs, somewhere between life in pink and no regrets. The evenings sometimes approach the famous original more, sometimes less. When things are going well, the audience almost only misses that typical crackling of old shellac treasures that distinguishes the original from the plagiarism. Almost.

Many artists try their hand at the rich repertoire of the great Piaf, who had sung over 3000 songs in her lifetime when she died in October 1963. Especially this year, when the greatest chanson singer of all time would have celebrated her 100th birthday, Piaf programmes are enjoying great popularity. But while most people just routinely string together La vie en rose, Milord and Non, je ne regrette rien, Marie Giroux, with pianist Jenny Schäuffelen and cellist Frédérique Labbow, offers her audience an extraordinary excursion through the life of the famous and infamous, celebrated and feared Piaf. It’s not about how Piaf was abandoned by her birth mother shortly after birth, neglected by one grandmother and raised in a brothel by the other. It is not about her alcoholic, violent father, the early death of her only daughter or the murder of her mentor. With Labbow’s support, Giroux and Schäuffelen discuss with wit and repartee no less authentic external views of Piaf’s tragedy-ridden life: they devote themselves to the numerous love affairs and their benefits for the great little Piaf. It’s all about getting along anyway.

That sounds like a dangerous tightrope walk. After all, rousing stage entertainment can justifiably be considered great art. After all, it’s about successfully reconciling contradictions: An artist must meet the expectations of the audience in terms of content, at best he may exceed them, but at the same time he must surprise them. The trio Giroux, Schäuffelen and Labbow, who also tour alongside Tim Bendzko and Andreas Bourani, succeed in this inimitably. The three music university graduates prove their impressive versatility with “Madame Piaf”, both in their sensitive and refreshing arrangements of the chansons with surprising instrument changes and in the originality with which they take on the men and women who lined the path of Piaf’s life.

Sometimes they were already famous themselves, boxers or cyclists or Marlene Dietrich, sometimes they became so in the wake of the little charismatic singer. And so Giroux surprises her audience in “Unmasking a Diva” with the great men of the chanson, from Charles Aznavour, Piaf’s former private secretary, to Gilbert Bécaud, Yves Montand, Georges Moustaki, who wrote Milord for Piaf, to Jacques Pills and Johnny Hallyday, the French soft rocker who wasn’t even helped by the fact that he was actually still under puppy protection when he met Piaf.

The new Piaf programme shows how Giroux studied Piaf intensively for six months in order to put together an amusing evening’s entertainment without unnecessary prudery but with expertise that is not musically rousing alone. Swept away my loves and all their whining, swept away forever,” Piaf sang in her most famous chanson, “I start from scratch, for my life, my happiness begin today with you.”