The Famous Spiegeltent, Sydney Festival Village
January 21, 2015

The uniquely eccentric violin-playing Czech songstress Iva Bittová has had two outings at this year’s Sydney Festival. The first performance, an evening of Bartók duets, took place in the cool, controlled environment of the City Recital Hall, Angel Place. For her second consecutive evening at the Festival, this time presenting a selection of her own eclectic arrangements, Bittová was relocated to the Famous Spiegeltent, situated in the make-shift festival village in Hyde Park.

This intimate, informal venue, which was packed for this performance, has largely been reserved for cabaret acts, and perhaps superficially Bittová’s oeuvre seems to fall into this category. However while this quirky and sumptuously decorated venue makes for a fun festival space, it is acoustically inert, far from soundproofed and after a swelteringly sunny Sydney summer day, unbearably warm – all issues that unfortunately conspired to undermine this otherwise engaging show.

Bittová is an infectiously charming performer, bounding onto the stage with a very persuasive energy. After a few friendly words of welcome she launched unceremoniously into her first arrangement, which contained a characteristically diverse range of influences, knitted together in Bittová’s indefatigable style. Although sometimes making use of a microphone onstage, Bittová is such an enthusiastically physical and unselfconscious performer, anchoring herself to one spot is totally at odds with her flamboyant personality. Large periods of the performance she remained unamplified, roaming the stage and sometimes coming into the audience to serenade us at close quarters.

While the combination of voice and violin is Bittová’s trademark, the violin plays second fiddle to the singing which is by far the most dominant element of the performance. Her controlled and deeply emotive voice is capable of impressive versatility, showed off via several effortlessly executed extended techniques. From guttural chest voice in a flamenco cante style, overtone and throat singing, silken operatic high notes and grubby, strangled shrieks, Bittová’s vocal acrobatics are masterful and offer a rich array of musical tools for her to communicate the narrative of her songs.

Many of Bittová’s arrangements meander through several source materials, from Yiddish fiddling, to Moravian folk song, to jazz standards, often mixing multiple languages and other vocalisations. The conviction of her story-telling is extremely seductive, so that while we may not understand the words, we feel their meaning all the same. However Bittová explores the full spectrum of her voice, from loud, strident and highly theatrical singing, through to delicate, brittle, almost whispered passages, and it was these more beautifully fragile moments of nuance and shade that were betrayed by the amount of noise intruding from outside.

The violin’s role throughout is primarily to provide simple accompaniments and Bittová is able to extract a sophisticated palette of different sonorities using a range of techniques. There is a folky naivety to the tone of the more conventionally played passages that pairs somewhat convincingly with the ethnic influences infused into many of Bittová’s songs, but I was left wanting more control and refinement from her playing, especially in her intonation which was fairly hit and miss throughout.

Of course this may be down to the obnoxious performance conditions of the Spiegeltent, which proved totally inappropriate for the subtleties and nuance of this performance. Bittová was forced to apologise at one point because her sweat was making it difficult to keep her violin secured under her chin, and from the increasingly lack lustre response during the couple of attempts at audience participation it was clear the uncomfortably sticky heat of the room was sedating the crowd.

To her credit Bittová remained defiant in the face of unflattering acoustics and even more unflattering sweat patches. Despite these challenges her sheer likeability kept me rooting for her, even when other audience members had reached the limits of their endurance and started to shuffle toward the doors. It may not go down in Bittová’s personal annuls as the best gig of her life, but she was still skilled enough to extract some moments of sheer magic. Even with the din of Sydney’s rush hour in the background, the persistent hum of the lighting rig above and even the occasional ring of a cash register from the Spiegeltent’s bar, her restrained closing number, an arrangement of Richard Rodger’s beautiful love song My Funny Valentine, was a refreshing moment of calm amidst the sounds of the city.

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