Francis Poulenc’s 1928 La Voix Humaine is an uncomfortable piece to listen to. It is essentially 50 minutes of recitative (which occasionally blossoms into moments of lyricism) underscored by alternating minimalist, spiky and lush early-20th-century harmonies. The text is by Jean Cocteau, and portrays a lengthy one-sided telephone conversation between ‘Elle’ and her lover. It is not a happy affair – the lover is clearly breaking it up (and, indeed, already out on the town), and Elle’s neediness and desperation (including the recounting of a failed suicide attempt) is overwhelming. She tries all the tricks – flirting, pretended indifference, wheedling, lying, summoning past happiness – that we all know too well, ultimately leaving the audience impressed yet ashamed that our voyeurism has uncovered our own cringe-worthy past behaviour.
OperaUpClose’s production, directed by Robin Norton-Hale, emphasises the intimacy of the piece by staging it in the smaller of its two spaces. Kate Lane’s set is a small maze of white mesh panels, not only suggestive of the way Elle is trapped in her obsession, but, along with Elle’s white silk pyjamas, also alludes to the mental institution to which Elle will almost certainly be committed should her implied second suicide attempt fail. Adding further to the intimacy (and hinting at the nightclub-cabaret style of the inter-war années folles), is the decision not to use Poulenc’s original generously orchestrated scoring, but his own reduction for piano – which is played with a sure understanding of Poulenc’s musical language by Musical Director Richard Black.
The role of Elle is sung by Sarah Minns, who brings to it a versatile brilliance. The colour of her voice changes in different registers, and she uses this to the full: an expressive vibrato when dealing with the operator; a hard edge for ‘you know me too well, I am not the sort who would ever pretend’; a creamy lyricism when she recounts past golden memories (accompanied by Poulenc’s deliciously lush harmonies, fleetingly reminiscent of songs such as Hôtel), and the occasional shrill top note that reminds us that she is on the edge of a breakdown. Perhaps the most emotionally powerful moment of the piece is her quiet, almost matter-of-fact, account of her failed suicide, which is accompanied by one of Poulenc’s beautifully crafted melancholy waltzes.
Perhaps the only quibble is with the language. OperaUpClose is committed to breaking down barriers and seeking new audiences, so all of their works are sung in English. The translation of Cocteau’s text by Joseph Machlis is flawless, and certainly adds to the accessibility and immediacy of the production. English, being a less inflected language than French, arguably also contributes to the gender-ambiguity of the piece: in the programme note, the Director suggests that the ‘Monsieur’ – Elle’s lover – may be a garconne-style woman, in keeping with the more flexible sexuality of the era, and reflecting Poulenc and Cocteau’s own homosexuality. And yet … and yet … there is almost no composer more French than Poulenc; somehow his music epitomises all of the post-World-War-One French clichés: hedonistic sophisticated Paris; bright sunlit days on the Côte d’Azur; rich listless countryside. And because of this, like the nightclub songs of Piaf from a later decade, his vocal music almost demands to be sung in French; without it, it loses flavour and ambience.
The opera has three more performances to run at Kings Place, before going on tour.