Mireille Mathieu Makes the Amphitheatre Intimate

The musical spirit of Edith Piaf and Judy Garland is alive and well in the singing of French chanteuse Mireille Mathieu. The veteran international performer, making her first Los Angeles appearance Thursday at the Universal Amphitheatre, is brilliantly sustaining the tradition of dramatic song.

Mathieu, 50, is a petite woman with a heart-shaped face and a Joan of Arc hairdo. When she first came on stage, it seemed impossible that this small figure, with her backup ensemble of seven instrumentalists and three singers, could manage to command the wide reaches of the Amphitheatre. But command it she did, and with nothing more than the power of her richly timbral voice and a compelling presentation.

Wisely, she chose a program filled with, as she put it, “many famous French songs.” There were the obligatory Piaf-associated tunes, of course--"Ne Me Quitte Pas,” “La Vie En Rose” and “Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien"--rendered with an intimate passion that seemed to transform the room into a tiny cabaret. She added “Un Homme, Une Femme” (A Man and a Woman), “Une Histoire D’Amour” (Love Story) and “Ma Melodie D’Amour,” as well as numbers in Spanish and German, plus a stirring French version of “New York, New York.” Finally, in a reading that emphasized her physical as well as musical resemblance to Garland, she sang “Over the Rainbow” in heavily accented but tenderly sensitive English.

Mathieu comes from an older school of performers--Piaf, Garland, Maurice Chevalier and Charles Aznavour among them. She understands, as they did, that songs are stories and that singers are storytellers.