I enjoyed an intimate and nostalgic evening dedicated to Cruel Romance, the Russian ballad-style songs about the darker and sadder side of life.
The Cruel Romance is also the name of one of my all-time favourite Russian films, adapted from Alexander Ostrovsky’s classic stage play and featuring many of those melancholy, sorrowful songs about heartbreak and betrayed love; it’s in fact impossible to imagine the movie having the same impact and depth without them. Being a big fan of Zulya (born in Russia’s Tatarstan, residing in Australia), this concert sounded like an irresistible combo. According to the musicologists, these emotionally intense songs can be of therapeutic benefit; while I can’t vouch for this effect on myself I had a great time at the concert reconnecting to my Russian roots.
I’ve been to plenty of shows at the Melbourne Recital Centre, but never seen the inside of the Primrose Potter Salon. It turned out to be the tiniest gig I’ve been to in a while, with maybe just over thirty people in the audience. It was so small and intimate that I didn’t take a single photo or video, just because the performers were so up close and it would have felt almost like a rude imposition to aim my mobile phone in their faces. Before the show started, we took time to admire the large beautiful oriental carpet thrown on the floor – this setup reminded me a bit of U2’s Beautiful Day video (minus the plane passing above the band’s heads).
I’ve seen Zulya play live once before, a good few years ago, and she remained in my memory as one of the most captivating and charismatic performers and storytellers I’ve ever seen. This night was no different; though the theme of the concert was rather dour and depressing, Zulya somehow turned it into a fun evening through her sheer force of personality, and an attitude towards this melodramatic sub-genre of song that perfectly balanced sincere admiration and love with just a touch of irreverence. She had a rock-solid support from the two members of her regular band, who contributed an acoustic guitar and double bass.
The evening kicked off with one of the most famous ballads from The Cruel Romance the movie, and continued with a wide variety of picks, from old-time gypsy songs dating to the times of Alexander Pushkin, to 20th century Russian urban ballads about unrequited love, prostitution and prison, that of course all ended unhappily for their unfortunate protagonists. For some international flavour, Zulya and her band threw in a few Polish, Ukrainian and Serbian songs written in the same style and with the same feel. The concert ended with another gypsy ballad, with Zulya inviting the audience to sing along.
For the encore, Zulya came back onstage to sing a soulful a cappella version of Aloukie, a traditional Tatar song from her 1998 album by the same name. As much as I enjoyed the concert, this was a reminder that Zulya is at her most magical when singing in her native Tatar language.