Opera North’s current tour now at Sadler’s Wells is a varied programme – the ever-popular Rigoletto, Britten’s modern masterpiece Peter Grimes and La voix humaine, a strange little piece by Francis Poulenc. Writing an opera with nothing but a woman on the telephone is a bold experiment but for me it doesn’t quite come off. This 45 minute monologue to music just doesn’t warrant an evening at the opera on its own and it’s therefore not a cheap ticket.
Renaissance Frenchman Jean Cocteau – painter, poet, film-maker, playwright; you name it, he did it – wrote La voix humaine as a play in the thirties and he fully co-operated with Poulenc turning it into an opera, even directing the first production himself in 1959.
Poulenc proved himself capable of writing an opera of great emotional intensity with Dialogues of the Carmelites a couple of years earlier. Despite its rich themes of loss, fear and death, La voix humaine doesn’t reach anything like the same heights. The short duration and limited dramatis personae don’t give it the scope to build. The final moments are dramatic enough but you have to sit through a lot of quite mundane material first.
A woman, close to suicide, anxiously waits for her ex-lover to phone her. When he does, he tells her that he is getting married. The conversation is continually interrupted by lost connections and another woman who seems to be getting a crossed line. The woman, known only as Elle, is in despair, with the constant fear of being cut off, in more than one sense. There’s plenty of imagery about the problems of communication and there’s something about using the telephone to deliver news of a sensitive nature that rings bells.
Deborah Warner‘s production is characteristically striking and, as the woman, Joan Rodgers gives a committed performance, adequately holding the stage for the work’s duration. Paul Watkins leads the large orchestra in a tight account of Poulenc’s often lush and impressionistic score. It is sung in English with the occasional French phrase.
In the programme notes, Opera North state that they believe La voix humaine capable of standing alone. I have to disagree – I think this work needs to be presented alongside another in order to make it a worthwhile evening in the theatre.