The Baroque Room, November 21
The shapeshifting composer Kurt Weill went from jobbing pianist to become, in partnership with Berthold Brecht, the toast of the Weimar Republic. Having fled the horrors of Nazism, he slotted firstly into Paris, and then into American popular song via musicals and film, influenced by it and influencing it in equal measure. Could there have been a Kander and Ebb without a Weill?
Mezzo soprano Gaye MacFarlane understands these varying demands on voice and acting, and, courtesy of her operatic career and 20 years in Germany, is entirely at home singing in German and French as well as English. Her hour-long show didn’t get off to the strongest start with her rendition of Mack the Knife too swiftly dispensing with the gutters and shadows of The Threepenny Opera, and careening into the breezy swing of Louis Armstrong, Bobby Darrin and Ella Fitzgerald, thereby sacrificing its sinister edge.
Much better was Nana’s Song, which, like the closing I Wait for a Ship, was penned from a prostitute’s point of view, the pre-WWII Weill being brilliant at depicting dark underbellies and world-weariness via melody and unsettling harmonies. Another was How Much Longer?, when MacFarlane piled up sadness and resignation like so much refuse from the patriarchy. Yet she also caught the note of resilience often implicit in these songs: an inner strength preventing desolation turning to despair.
Her voice was too brittle on the deeply mysterious September Song, but she was in full command of Lament of the Seine, her acting as potent as her singing (and Crease’s accompaniment) as she rang out this litany of the horrors of the Seine’s contents. Just as good was the beautiful Youkali, a tango about a Utopian island, on which MacFarlane’s unexpected unleashing the full power of her operatic voice was like the sun breaking cover after an eclipse. All at Once was a throwaway, unlike the high comedy of Alan Jay Lerner’s words to Mr Right. But the songs that defined MacFarlane’s expert tribute were those finely weighted with ineffable longing.