STORY BY GEORGINA BENISON
PHOTO BY KHALID AL BUSAIDY
Dimmed lighting, a table with glasses and a candle, drapes behind four string musicians, the scene was set on stage for an intimate night in one of Lisbon’s famous “Fado Houses”.
The audience were not in Portugal, however, but in a special performance of the Iberian folk genre, right here at the Royal Opera House Muscat on Tuesday evening. Fado - which means fate in Portuguese - emerged as a common form of song among sailors and dockworkers facing hard lives in Lisbon in the early nineteenth century. This dramatically compelling form of music is deeply rooted in melancholy fears about cruel fate, irreparable loss and deep yearning. It is the Blues of Portugal’s working class. Dispelling concern that visiting singer, Claudia Aurora, might somehow be too contemporary in her interpretation and not the ‘real thing’, the audience was indeed immersed in authentic Fado style throughout her performance, and transported to those little stone houses in old Lisbon.
The show began with guitarist and composer, Javier Moreno, playing his relaxed ‘Instrumental’ alone on stage, to set the smoky, haunting atmosphere. He was joined by bouzouki player, Pavlos Carvalho, who added the spicey ornamentation to the evening, followed by cellist, Kate Shortt and double-bass player, Jon Short. Easy as you like, Claudia Aurora slipped on stage and opened with the title track to her 2010 album, ‘Silêncio’ (Silence of the sea), an evocative slow waltz, recalling the voice of Ana Moura, which immediately captivated and bewitched.
The audience was in her hands from the moment she opened her mouth; there was no doubt about Aurora’s magnificent vocal prowess . This was classical fado at its best, and her clear, strong style with little vibrato was simply spine-tingling.
‘Desejo Do Mar’ (Longing for the Sea) was another slow, trance-like song featuring an improvisatory bouzouki solo by Carvalho – who is also well known as a cellist on the London music scene.
In more upbeat mood, ‘Mariquinha’ (Little Maria) featured a beautiful guitar introduction from composer and collaborator, Javier Moreno, breaking into a rhythmic but no less heart-felt section, depicting Maria dancing at a ball. A trip to Brazil, where of course the language remains the same, led to the Oulman/Amalia Rodrigues classic, ‘Formiga Bossa Nova’, praising the strength of working ants over the lazy hedonism of singing cicadas accompanied by sultry added-jazz chords from Claudia’s husband, Moreno, on Spanish guitar.
In a return to the traditionally mournful style of Fado, Claudia opened the 2016 composition, ‘Lua’ (the moon), in an outpouring of dark drama and yearning emotion, gradually building up to a frenetic climax. “Saudade” is the emotion at the very core of fado, the love that remains after something is gone: a lover, a friend or a place. Underpinning the melancholy was Jon Short on plucked upright-bass, who also plays in the Irish folk band, “Sheelanagig” and as a session musician in Bristol.
‘Amantes’ (Loss) from their recent album, ‘Mulher Do Norte’ (Woman of the North) recorded in Alentejo, featured an atmospheric cello solo, giving an orchestral, timeless quality to the music. Members of the band became backing vocalists, gradually fading out to a poignant silence.
The second half of the programme – a 90-minute set with no interval - began with the Stratford-on-Avon born, fifty-two year old cellist, Kate Shortt, who is a regular member of the band, but also a jazz pianist and singer in her own right around London. She performed Brazilian Zequinha De Abreu’s famous 1917 choro, (lament) ‘Tico-Tico no Fubá’ (Sparrow in the Cornmeal)’ in a fast, happy syncopated rhythm, amazingly undistracted by the audience’s clapping, gradually speeding up to a delightful frenzy.
The songs continued to draw in and seduce: ‘Povo Que Lavas No Rio’ (People who wash clothes in the River) composed by Joachim Campos/de Mello in 1952 was in traditional Fado style, based on minor scales and impossibly mournful melodies. ‘Havemos De Ir A Viana’ – a town in the north – from her 2016 album, stretched her vocally in her upper range. A fast bouzouki solo provided a wild, reckless quality to the music, in contrast to the more sublime mood of much of the performance. Their original, ‘Maos De Luar’, inspired by her own grandmother, was dedicated to Claudia’s mother and all mothers everywhere, sharing some personal anecdotes from her recent life experiences. Claudia said – and she talked a lot – that she could not stop singing even if she wanted to.
Singing is hard work but it is in her soul and she must sing. It was clear that her voice comes from deep within her, such a different place to her speaking voice, and she had the ability to transfix and transport the listener by her passion, drenched in emotion and drama. Their 2013 Flamenco-inspired, ‘Cigana’, (Gypsy), was introduced by an Andalusian guitar solo and the most passionate vocal line imaginable. Paradoxically, the despair and sadness of Claudia’s singing did not depress, but had an uplifting, cathartic effect on the audience.
Another beautiful ballad-waltz, ‘Promessa’, gave the promise of Hope and Love at the end of the show. A final encore brought the quintet to the front of the stage to perform the famous, Pedro Rodrigues/Mourao Ferreira classic, ‘Primavera’ in a completely acoustic, intimate ambience, leaving the audience with a lasting taste of the real Portuguese ‘Fado’.