Rarely have two sides of a picnic felt so different.
In Poulenc’s La Voix humaine of 1958, itself based on Cocteau’s earlier play, we witness one side of a phone call. We may hear the woman’s reactions to what the man on the other end of the line is saying, but we never know his precise words, the tone of his voice or just how much Elle’s own state of mind is affecting what she hears. Laurent Pelly’s new production for Glyndebourne Festival Opera brings another point into focus by drawing our attention to the fact that the man himself cannot see the woman. As we witness this predominantly abstract staging, we can be certain that whatever he has pictured in his mind concerning Elle’s whereabouts, demeanour or state of mind, he is absolutely wrong. Her voice may give much away, but only we who see Elle for ourselves can come close to any sort of truth regarding her disposition, such is the distance that telephone lines create.
Elle is situated on a broad seesaw that initially leans towards us, but over the course of the opera slowly tips to a level position and then up before coming back down once more. In Caroline Ginet’s set, the backdrop is pitch black except for a slim, orange horizontal line that makes it feel reminiscent of a Mark Rothko painting. Like the Rothko, it suggests there is a vast universe beyond the present situation but that it is out of reach and can only be glimpsed at. The line changes colour over the course of the drama, slowly turning to a dull grey, while black walls either side of the seesaw close in on occasions to make the space feel even more claustrophobic.
An unspecific setting may not always be the best way to present a piece such as this. Although its themes are universal, it is easier to relate to the feelings of emptiness and despair when we see a person experiencing them in their own real life situation than when they are rendered in a virtually abstract one. In this instance, however, the setup enables the evening to feel more powerful because it really enables the telephone to take centre stage. It has to have a cord for the purposes of the plot when modern phones do not, but setting the action in the past would not have aided the universality or contemporary nature of the themes. Setting it in the modern day would have been possible (James Kent’s recent film version starring Danielle de Niese ensured Elle used a phone with a cord for her final call only), but one may have lost the sense of this telephone being the only thing that connects Elle and the man. While this could be as true now as it ever was, when there are so many ways of communicating, and when numbers appearing on phones would have prevented Elle from ringing the wrong place when she tried to call back, the idea that their entire connection hung by a thread would have been undermined.
In this version, the telephone, which possesses both a cord and a wire, could not be more important as a tool. Elle clutches both the body and receiver throughout as if they are integral parts of her, which, by being the means to connect her to the man she still loves, they are. Dressed in a black négligée and long khaki overcoat, which is in keeping with the original libretto, Stéphanie d’Oustrac gives a deeply emotive and very physical performance as the woman. She often lies or sits in a huddled wreck (which again the man would never know) and her delivery is passionate enough to generate a compelling piece of drama, yet still subtle and varied enough to remain believable and interesting throughout. Her voice itself is highly secure, meaning it can paradoxically capture frailty in all its forms, and every alteration in shade is met with appropriate variations in the level of vibrancy and range of nuances that she brings to her sound. Particularly engaging are those climaxes when her voice opens out to its fullest. Here, the sound is shockingly compelling as the technique that underlies everything she sings is never sacrificed for a second. The fact that she meets all of these passionate moments so well when they do not all take place in the same part of the register is also noteworthy.
The movement of the seesaw is also in keeping with the drama. It can be level at moments such as when Elle is cut off from her former lover, thus signifying how flat and low she feels. When it tips away from us she confesses to the man that she lied to him, with the fact we can see less of her prompting her movements to become less frenetic and suggesting how much she wants to hide her embarrassment. All this is part and parcel of a performance that shows an exquisite attention to detail, right up to the moment when Elle removes her coat when explaining she put it on last night when she planned to stand under his window, as if this admission renders redundant any further need for it. At the end an image of the man is revealed behind her, but even this adds an additional layer to the drama because who he is seems so ambiguous. Whether it be the positioning of the head or the lighting, he really looks as if he could be the most incredible human being alive or equally someone who isn’t worth a single minute of the woman’s time.
“…there is a vast universe beyond the present situation but that it is out of reach…”
In tone, Poulenc’s Les Mamelles de Tirésias of 1947 could not be more different, but like La Voix humaine it is based on a play, this time by Apollinaire, written thirty years earlier in 1917. It is a satire on the repopulating of France, with the two World Wars ensuring the desire for this was strong when both the play and opera premiered, and an exploration of gender relations and roles in society. It sees the young married Thérèse lose her breasts when they fly off, grow a beard, change her name to Tirésias and renounce having babies so she can pursue her own career. At the same time, her spouse, who is only ever known as The Husband, becomes more feminine and ends up fulfilling the role of repopulating France by having 40,049 babies in a single day. He claims they will keep him by pursuing distinguished and lucrative careers, but when things look like they are really hurtling out of control, a fortune teller appears, who it transpires is Thérèse. She and The Husband are reconciled and they lead the company in appealing to the audience to make more babies.
There are a host of other Surreal touches such as a pair of drinking buddies, Presto and Lacouf, who repeatedly duel and kill each other, though in the friendliest manner possible, but when one sees a piece based on what happens when a body part is lost it is hard not to think of Gogol and Shostakovich’s The Nose. That the opera is a satire is hard to dispute, but what exactly it is satirising or arguing is more open to debate. One answer, however, may lie in the inconsistency of Thérèse’s attitudes as she begins by trying to throw off the shackles of motherhood before being the ringleader in appealing to everyone to go forth and multiply. In this respect, Apollinaire, and Poulenc in particular, may have been satirising supposedly visionary ideas for taking France forward by suggesting the proposed methods for doing so were actually highly reactionary. They were not necessarily condoning the idea of men and women assuming their traditional roles once more, but more likely exposing the fact that official policy was ultimately geared towards supporting this happening.
There is undoubtedly much humour to be found in the piece and it is brought out to the full as Thérèse’s breasts ascend as giant pink balloons and are burst as she fires a gun (in the original she uses a cigarette lighter). However, the strength of Pelly’s production lies in the fact that it does not merely play the opera for comic effect, but rather as a piece of genuinely absurdist drama so that the laughs are kept in balance with the social commentary. Ginet’s set is not exactly the same as for La Voix humaine but it has similarities as it comprises a broad strip that runs from the front of the stage to the back and up. Small sections of it can be slid into and out of place by people in costume, thus handing the staging a touch of the Brechtian, and enabling a bare stage suddenly to reveal a bed that Thérèse and her Husband ‘lie’ upright in.
The aesthetic aids the bizarreness without pushing the silliness too far. The chorus sport black and slightly disconcerting, but far from unrecognisable, bouffant, curtains and bun hairstyles. In fact, one member looks very much like the German operatic countertenor Klaus Nomi in his postmodern pop guise. The supporting principals on the other hand all adopt a different colour, whether that be green, yellow, orange, blue or silver, that dominates both their clothes and skin. A short ballet feels absurd enough under the circumstances but is made all the more effective for not being excessively ridiculous, while the most cluttered the stage ever gets is when The Husband’s scientific equipment is revealed as he makes babies to specifications that will guarantee certain professions for them. The best scene of all, however, is that which reveals The Husband’s 40,049 babies. With the facial expressions of the front row of these, who are all played by chorus members, being priceless, it creates a masterly aesthetic while feeling genuinely disconcerting. Most striking is the fact that there is a certain believability about these babies, even though their proportions are deliberately wrong and we can clearly see the mechanisms that go behind creating them.
The standout performances come from Elsa Benoit and Régis Mengus as Thérèse and The Husband. They bounce off each other very well while offering excellent vocal performances, with Benoit revealing sublime and glistening tones and Mengus displaying a strong yet supple sound. There is excellent support from, among others, Gyula Orendt as the Theatre Director and Policeman, Christophe Gay as Presto, François Piolino as Lacouf, Loïc Félix as The Parisian Journalist and James Way as The Son. Robin Ticciati’s conducting of the London Philharmonic Orchestra across both operas proves to be finely attuned to their highly disparate demands. Glyndebourne is world renowned for many things including its Handel and Mozart, but when this current offering is considered alongside its L’heure espagnole and L’enfant et les sortilèges from a few years ago, it is clear that its achievement in delivering these type of single composer double bills deserves exactly the same level of recognition.
• This Poulenc Double Bill will be available from October 2022 on the new streaming service Glyndebourne Encore.
• Glyndebourne Festival Opera’s 2022 season continues until 28 August. For full details of it, and of Glyndebourne Touring Opera’s forthcoming season and the Festival’s 2023 season, visit its website.