San Francisco Opera Lab was founded last year as a venue for experimental and small-scale works that would be out of place on San Francisco Opera’s main stage. Their second season is off to a thrilling start: first, Ted Hearne’s uncategorizable musical experience The Source, and now a gripping production of Poulenc’s one-act, one-woman opera, La Voix humaine. This is just the right repertoire for the venue, and Anna Caterina Antonacci is just the right soprano for La Voix humaine.

Anna Caterina Antonacci © Cory Weaver | San Francisco Opera
Anna Caterina Antonacci
© Cory Weaver | San Francisco Opera

Poulenc’s opera is simultaneously timeless and dated. The situation – a woman’s desperate post-breakup phone conversation with her ex-lover – is surely unfolding somewhere in the world even as I write this paragraph. The humorous details of Cocteau’s text, however, are charmingly antiquated. The line keeps disconnecting, and Elle (the woman) must deal with the operator (what’s that, again?), an eavesdropper, and misconnected callers. In this pre-cell phone era, even calling her ex back becomes a challenge that catches him in a lie.

A one-act opera poses a production and marketing difficulty: it’s an opera in its own right, but it’s too short to make up a full evening’s entertainment. Anna Caterina Antonacci paired the piece with a warm-up program of art songs by Berlioz, Debussy and Poulenc. It was clearly that – a warm-up. All shared certain characteristics with the operatic centrepiece of the evening: they were in French, they told stories, they featured naturalistic text settings, and they (mostly) dealt with love and relationships. They provided a favorable introduction to Antonacci’s versatile instrument, letting her luxuriate in her rich, gravelly lower range and hold ringing top notes. Pianist Donald Sulzen also showed off a breadth of styles, from playful to grandiose.

The collection of art songs was less suited to Antonacci’s dramatic strengths. She has a certain tragic seriousness that she never seems to shake. It worked well for Berlioz’s La Mort d’Ophélie but not for Debussy’s Chansons de Bilitis or Poulenc’s La Fraîcheur et le feu. Both sets include cheerful and tender songs, and Antonacci’s expressive choices didn’t highlight this variety. There was also an internal quality to her acting. Lowered gazes and closed eyes kept me from getting drawn into her emotional world.

Anna Caterina Antonacci (Elle) © Cory Weaver | San Francisco Opera
Anna Caterina Antonacci (Elle)
© Cory Weaver | San Francisco Opera

In La Voix humaine, everything came together vocally and dramatically. Antonacci let us in psychologically. The gravity of her portrayal was appropriate for the frantic, suicidal character of Elle. Her conversational delivery of the text was comfortable and engaging, punctuated by glorious, full-voiced flights of lyricism. She kept the score moving at a brisk clip, with the opera clocking in under the quoted forty minutes (which most recordings exceed).

Donald Sulzen was everything a singer or audience could hope for in a collaborative pianist. He stayed perfectly in sync with Antonacci while playing with distinctive flair. Dark chords, nightclub music, and the ringing phone all got their own textures. I didn’t miss the full orchestra (a credit both to Poulenc’s piano-only version of his score and Sulzen’s masterful performance). Sulzen’s overall approach was quick and light; a good counterbalance to Antonacci’s weightier interpretation.