Ute Lemper, a chanteuse of unique range and ability across all media, presented her latest project (and recording), “Paris Days, Berlin Nights,” at the Kennedy Center’s Terrace Theater on Monday evening. Lemper’s material was varied and well chosen, and she can deliver a song like no one else. But the evening was somewhat frustrating, beginning with the sound design.
Even small voices have no problem filling the Terrace Theater, and Lemper’s voice is large and protean. Her “band” consisted of the excellent Vogler String Quartet and pianist/arranger Stefan Malzew — nothing that would cause any singer to have to force. Thus, the decision to amplify both the strings and the vocalist was unwelcome. The mix made the voice metallic and piercing, at times nearly drowning out the quartet; often the un-miked piano was simply inaudible. And while Malzew’s arrangements seemed effective as string writing, the presence of amplification raised a question: Why not add a rhythm section, as most of the songs generally required? Things were just off-kilter.
Then there was the matter of texts. With the subtle but fairly sophisticated light show going on behind the artists, couldn’t they also have projected the non-English lyrics Lemper so dramatically delivered, as is routinely done in operas nowadays? Instead, patrons were forced to choose between squinting at their programs or simply watching Lemper emote about who knows what.
Despite these impediments to full enjoyment, Lemper is an absolutely riveting performer. Although her formal training was in dance and theater, it is her richly flexible, multi-hued voice that sets her apart. Applying her spectacular diction to songs in French, German, Spanish, Yiddish, Russian, Lunfardo and English, she creates a different sound-world with each one, performing with her entire body while standing in one place. When she flavors the delivery with keening or growling, it sounds as if the composers had meant it that way all along.
Robert Battey is a freelance writer.