Music Review: Artemisia LeFay— “Ghosts of Weimar Past”

June 21, 2021 | By

Artemisia LeFay (Photo: Renee Guerrero)

Many of us who are crawling out of our pandemic isolation might be ready to dive into hedonism—in the hope that it could serve as a tonic for the underlying rumble of fear we’ve lived with for the past year. Enter Artemisia LeFay’s timely Weimar-themed show at Don’t Tell Mama, Ghosts of Weimar Past, where we have a chance to revisit 1920s Berlin with its playful and simultaneously dark sensibilities.

LeFay has great taste: her setlist has an unrequited love sub-theme, where love is either not given, or not wanted; it’s primarily in German with a few songs in English and one in French.  Nicht- Deutschsprachigen: There’s plenty of setup for the non-German speakers among us to be able to follow the storylines. LeFay has thrown in a few greatest hits from the Weimar songbook but focuses on some lesser-known gems. Violist Alexia del Giudice and pianist Renee Guerrero set the mood for the evening—opening with a melancholy instrumental waltz about morphine, Mischa Spoliansky’s “Morphium.” LeFay enters with a classic anthem, “Das Lilalied” (“The Lavender Song”; Mischa Spoliansky, Kurt Schwabach, with English translation by Jeremy Lawrence), that declares in a strong march: “We’re not afraid/to be queer and different.” It’s a poignant moment of solidarity with the LGBTQ+ community of a hundred years ago as we celebrate Pride Month.

LeFay (Photo: Tom Schubert)

LeFay brings out the longing in “Peter, Peter, Komm Zu Mir Zurück” (“Peter, Peter, Come to Me Right Now”; Rudolf Nelson, Friedrich Hollænder), which Weimar fans will know from singers from Marlene Dietrich to Ute Lemper. I love the repetition of the name in this song; any man you have to call more than once is already a lot of work. Friedrich Hollænder’s “Illusions” was especially beautiful with del Giudice’s viola leading LeFay into a deeply emotional and grounded few minutes of storytelling. As a Jewish composer who had to leave Berlin during the Nazi occupation and went on to reinvent himself in the U.S. scoring films, Hollænder is another example of resilience to which LeFay calls attention in course of the evening. 

LeFay’s patter is well-researched and well-delivered but could use a little tightening-up; the show as a whole could reach another level with the outside eye of a director. I have such admiration for the singers who are greeting us as we return to live performance. If you’ve been running scales (and sewing—LeFay made all the costumes) during the year—I was on Zoom calls and snacking—you already have my respect. The fact that LeFay, on her first night of the show, occasionally sounded like her voice was still warming up is quite understandable: we’re all still warming up! There were moments where I was looking for a smoother transition from her upper to lower voice, bringing her strong legit mezzo into a more confident mix or chest register. By the time she reached “Je Ne T’Aime Pas” (“I Do Not Love You”) (Kurt Weill, Maurice Magre), LeFay was really in command of the room, fully warmed up, and the strength and beauty of her voice were especially evident. “Alles Schwindel” (“It’s All a Swindle”; Mischa Spoliansky, Marcellus Schiffer, with English verse by Jeremy Lawrence) from a 1931 cabaret operetta of the same name, is great fun. LeFay cheekily warns us in German, and then in English, to take what we can get and trust no one: not politicians on the take, and not even your own Grandma. It works very well to end a heartfelt, emotional performance with a wink. After all, it’s only a cabaret, but oh, we’re so happy to be back.

Artemisia LeFay will be appearing again at Don’t Tell Mama on June 27.


Category: News / Reviews / Commentary

About the Author ()

From Canada, Penelope Thomas came to NY to study dance with Merce Cunningham; then through a series of fortunate and unfortunate events, she wound up back in singing and acting. Credits include lead vocals with FauveMuseum on two albums and live at Symphony Space, singing back-up for Bistro Awards director Shellen Lubin at the Metropolitan Room, reading poet Ann Carson’s work at the Whitney, and touring North America and Europe with Mikel Rouse’s The End of Cinematics. In Toronto, she studied piano at the Royal Conservatory of Music and cello with the Claude Watson School for the Arts, and in New York she studied music theory with Mark Wade. She's taught in the New School’s Sweat musical theatre intensive and taught dance in public schools and conservatories.

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