Monday 23 August 2021

EIF 2021 - Lonely House, or, An Outstanding Evening of Song

 When the International Festival announced that this year's programme was to take place almost entirely in tents two events stood out - this performance of Kurt Weill's songs dating from his exiles in Paris and New York, and Alan Cumming's appearance on the final weekend. This is not to say that there aren't other world class performers in this year's programme but these two shows were instances where I knew in advance that they could almost certainly transcend what I expected to be the acoustic limitations of the tents because they were shows that would have been miked under regular circumstances. In this first instance my supposition proved correct. This is the first of the four shows in the tents I've attended which transcended their limitations as performance spaces. As the songs progressed I increasingly forgot the sound of the rain, the chill in the air and was simply immersed in the mesmerising artistry of Katharine Mehrling and Barrie Kosky.

Kosky previously showed himself adept in this kind of collaboration at Festival 2019 when he brought colleagues from his Komische Oper, Berlin for a marvellous late night performance of Yiddish opera excerpts at the Lyceum. This was Mehrling's debut at the Festival, and what an electrifying performance it was. 

As Mehrling and Kosky explain the evening covers Weill's four musical worlds - the Berlin he was forced to flee, the Paris and New York of his first and second exiles, and the Hebrew music of the desert. I've long thought that Weill's Broadway shows are underperformed (I loved One Touch of Venus (1943) when I was able to see it off-West End a few years back). but it was fascinating to learn from Kosky that in Germany the post-Berlin Weill is completely dismissed. 

Mehrling and Kosky cover the full range of the songs Weill wrote in exile from love & patter songs for Broadway, French language cabaret songs, and the biting comment on Nazism - Schickelgruber. In contrast to other performances in the tents that I've so far heard here a full dynamic range was audible from the softest pianissimo to an overpowering desperation in the extraordinary number Train du ciel (at least from my seat at the front). Mehrling's range is superb from the most intimate, tender yearning of songs like My Ship and Speak Low to that desperation just mentioned. My one quibble, and it's a very minor one, is that in some of the patter numbers (The Saga of Jenny for instance) not all the lyrics came across completely clearly. Mehrling also has that rare thing - presence - when she's on stage one just wants to watch her. Kosky similarly draws out all the moods from Weill's accompaniments - it's a well matched partnership.

The theme of exile is, obviously, highly topical but Mehrling and Kosky sensibly don't force any direct comparisons or connections on the audience - we are left to draw our own conclusions. I was grateful though, for the inclusion during the last number of some words of Lotte Lenya's after Weill's death - delivered in a manner that was powerfully moving.

This was an outstanding, electrifying performance - given its suitability to the space it's a bit surprising to me that the Festival have put this (& indeed the Cumming show) on for such short runs - Mehrling/Kosky were here for only two performances. Consequently, I cannot urge you to buy a ticket but only to look out for repeat performances elsewhere in the UK. I can only be glad that I did make the trip north this year and had the chance to see this. And to hope perhaps that the Festival might get Kosky to bring us some productions of complete Weill Broadway musicals.

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