All in all La Voix Humane was an impressive appetizer ahead of the main Opera Holland Park Festival. It is good to see venues in the many-mansioned Royal Albert Hall opened up outside the Proms season, and it is to be hoped that the company continue to spread their wings in this way, particularly as the there are no facilities for chamber opera in the big tent at Holland Park.
Things you can’t imagine, don’t exist.
Sometimes it is the period just before the present day that seems the most historically remote and alien. This was a constant thought throughout the fine performance by Opera Holland Park of Poulenc’s one-act lyric tragedy, La Voix Humaine, written originally for his muse Denise Duval in 1958. As Mark Valencia reminded us in a useful and succinct introduction, the action revolves around a telephone call, but not of the type we know today. Not just an old-fashioned squat dial-up landline, but party lines, operators and the constant threat of getting cut off. It is a different world from our own and yet only a few decades ago. The fraught nature of communication is at the heart of this opera and though we could say that a different set of barriers has arisen for ourselves, to understand this opera we need to put ourselves back fully into the France of mid-twentieth century.
This is a story of a desperate woman, simply described as ‘Elle’, who was recently jilted by her lover. Just as she cannot make a proper connection on the phone so she cannot reconnect properly with her former lover. She has isolated herself from the world but fetishized the phone as the one remaining point of contact with her former partner. In a sequence of calls we eavesdrop on one side of their conversations as she moves closer and closer to the end of her tether.
Originally written by Jean Cocteau as a monodrama in the 1920s, it was adapted by Poulenc as a study in the expression of different stages of anguish in the wake of his masterpiece, Dialogues of the Carmelites, to which it bears a distinct musical resemblance. Anyone familiar with that work will recognise the long melismatic lines, the shift between formal aria and meditative arioso or heightened recitative, and the mood switches between a jagged modernism and a haze of smoochy, yearning harmony that can slide in unexpectedly and take your breath away.
While there is no plot as such all the traditional unities are observed and there are clear sub-sections within the fifty minutes it takes to perform. The mood switches take their origin almost certainly from Cocteau’s own experiences of a rough break up with a former gay lover, and we know that both Duval and Poulenc were in similar situations at the time of the work’s composition. If anguish is the overall theme, then within it the protagonist has to display a lot of different shades of pain – anger and pain at betrayal; desperation to retain the attention and love of her former partner, even at the expense of truth, dignity and self-respect; and a degree of self-hatred and ultimately self-harm. These are all extremes, but they have to be shaded and structured and therein is the key to a successful performance.
Rightly this work has garnered the label of a ‘concerto for soprano’. It is a real test of technique and stamina, both emotional and physical. The performer is alone on stage throughout, and has a whole gamut of technical challenges to negotiate her way through. Sometimes she has long stretches of unaccompanied singing, and at other points she has to subdue and float above the orchestral/piano accompaniment. Intensity has to be parcelled out with care and cunning.
Above all the singer has to use her imagination to fire our imaginations: as the quotation from the libretto at the head of this review suggests, this is work where imagination is reality. We in the audience have to imagine and enter into her fearful state of mind, which itself is in part an imaginative projection, perhaps in fact a deluded fantasy, of the protagonist herself. While it is a great role for a soprano, any singer brave enough to take it on has to put a lot of herself on the line to bring it off successfully.
We were listening here to the version for voice and piano rather than voice and orchestra. This is inevitably a more intimate experience that draws you into the experience rather than impressing or overwhelming the listener with Poulenc’s sumptuous orchestration. While it is hard to imagine a better version with orchestra than the 1970 film made by Duval, in live performance the piano version has more potential to involve and grip the listener, at least when it is done as well as it is here.
Pascal Rogé was luxury casting as the pianist: all his skills as an interpreter of Ravel and Poulenc were to the fore here in the way he withdrew into the background to give space to the singer, while offering ravishing shades of tone and stark power as needed at the key transitions and interludes in the work. Anne Sophie Duprels is a regular performer of lead roles for Opera Holland Park, and her acting and vocal skills were fully exercised here in a performance that had a wide range of expression from rawness to refinement. The danger in this piece is that you peak too soon, and she carefully graded her performance so that the more melodramatic moments delivered more impact through holding back.
Director Marie Lambert had her perform the piece on a small raised dais backed with an up-ended bed frame splashed with blue paint. Indeed a chilly cobalt blue was something of a theme in the lighting scheme. There was little room for manoeuvre and few props, but enough of a setting to give the impression of caged and desperate energy. It was a good thing for the piece and the players that the original ending, which risks ridicule, is hinted at rather than played out to the letter.
All in all this was an impressive appetizer ahead of the main Opera Holland Park Festival. It is good to see venues in the many-mansioned Royal Albert Hall opened up outside the Proms season, and it is to be hoped that the company continue to spread their wings in this way, particularly as the there are no facilities for chamber opera in the big tent at Holland Park.