The Belle Epoque was the pinnacle of arts in Europe, literally the ‘Golden Age’. With a name like that, Bellepoque of course, strives for excellence in their productions, and to showcase just what is it that made the era such a fascinating and innovative time.
In Roots, the team quite literally takes its audience back in time, presenting a series of pieces and works from famous composers of the Belle Epoque. The presentation began with Dr Thomas Manhart giving a little educational lesson on the history of the Belle Epoque, equipping audience members with the right amount of knowledge to tackle and understand the pieces we were about to witness, and make it more accessible. One of the most fascinating things we learn was the Francophilia associated with the period, a perfect complement to the ongoing Voilah! Festival as we celebrate all things French. An An extreme example of this was how composer Offenbach was originally christened Jacob, but under influence of the Belle Epoque era, changed his name to the more French sounding Jacques.
With a Steinway and Sons at the forefront, Dr Robert Casteels took to the piano and opened the show, as we went through some of the more significant songs of the era, connecting the dots as we went from song to song. Led by tenor Brendan Keefe-Au and Bellepoque founder soprano Sabrina Zuber, the show began with Henri Duparc’s Chanson triste, a technically difficult piece and a demanding song that challenged Brendan. But Brendan was more than capable of tackling the song, showing gusto in his performance and secured the integrity of the piece with his keen sense of control over the crescendos and decrescendos.
Sabrina then came onstage to sing Gabriel Faure’s Le papillon et la fleur. Sabrina moves with a grace and elegance in her expressive body movements, a freedom in the way she ‘fluttered’ around the stage and a confidence in her voice and body both. The insect theme carried on the final piece of the segment, with Offenbach’s La cigale et la fourmi regarding a cicadaand an ant featuring both Sabrina and Brendan. Sabrina plays the cicada, holding a cutout of said insect in her hands, while Brendan hides in the shadows, creeping about slyly and avoiding conversation with the grasshopper. Their commitment to their actions and total immersion created some chuckles from the audience, a piece that was both fun, yet still allowed the singers to show off their vocal prowess; Brendan in particular possesses a strong voice that fills the Recital Studio, and the two shared good onstage chemistry.
In the second part of Roots, the team brought us to Southeast Asia, informing us of the simultaneously happening musical movements on the other side of the world during the Belle Epoque. Led by SOTA Malay Fusion Ensemble leader and accordion player Syafiqah ‘Adha Sallehin, we were presented with Sri Banang, a song that characterised the Bangsawan, or Malay Opera style of the time. With soprano Syakirah Noble singing and moving to the music, we were transported to the era and could practically imagine ourselves sitting around a fireplace in the kampung, the perfect complement to Roots.
The second song of the segment, Akar, was quite literally a title that translated to ‘root’, and was a significant song in Syafiqah’s life. Focusing on three different Malay rhythms, the song also acted as a tribute to the upcoming World Accordion Day. One admires her mastery over the accordion, and how well she manipulates the difficult instrument and create smooth, genre-bending music. In the final song of the segment, Joget Serampang Laut, all the instruments and singers from SOTA’s Malay Fusion Ensemble came together to perform. As disparate as these styles and instruments seemed, they somehow managed to harmonise and match up to produce a unique symphony.
Finally, Roots ended off with songs to evoke the atmosphere of a Parisian soiree, or evening party. This segment opened with Mare maje, scura maje, a traditional song from Abruzzo in the South of Italy, where Sabrina Zuber was born. Growing up, her grandmother used to sing it to her. Zuber had always thought it was a lullaby due to its slow, calming sound, but later learnt it was actually a song about a widow in mourning. With Zuber’s performance, the song sounded beautiful, and Zuber sang with conviction that brought to mind her childhood spent with her grandmother, translating to her performance onstage.
In its final celebratory notes, Roots ended off strong with a series of songs by Francesco Paolo Tosti, with both Brendan and Sabrina’s voices perfectly in sync and complementary to each other, bringing out the class and luxury of Parisian life and the story behind each song through their performance. Perhaps this truly is what Roots is all about – going back to where it all began and finding the universality of music to bridge our modern divides and celebrate our inherent similarities in our past, finding unity again in the present.
Roots played at the Esplanade Recital Studio on 27th April as part of Voilah! French Festival Singapore 2018. Voilah! runs across various venues from 1st April to 5th May. For the full lineup and more information, visit the website here