Thunder and lightning followed us up towards Edinburgh’s Quaker Meeting House, nestling below the Castle, as much rain bouncing up as coming down – a proper storm drenching the Tattoo visitors and Fringe event queues, but a perfect setting for Poulenc’s taut one-act opera La Voix Humaine, strikingly performed by Open Bodies for Opera in a version for soprano and piano accompaniment.

Filipa Portela (Elle) © David Mar Photography
Filipa Portela (Elle)
© David Mar Photography

La Voix Humaine, based on a one-act play by Jean Cocteau, attracted the composer who wrote his version for the soprano Denise Duval, his first Blanche in Dialogues des Carmélites the previous year in 1957. This mercurial one-way telephone conversation between an abandoned woman and her lover was a personal project for them both – Poulenc familiar with Duval’s tempestuous love life and haunted by demons of his own.

We discover Elle sleeping fitfully on her sofa in her messy, chaotic apartment, an open case with photographic memorabilia strewn over the floor, a plate of half-finished food, a bedside cabinet with various bottles and a proper red telephone complete with a dial and curly cord. Waiting for that special call to come in a world before mobile phones and the internet gave telephone conversations a huge significance, laden with layers of meanings in this lively dialogue.

It is a brilliant concept as one half of a conversation gives enough of a story to make sense, but we have to imagine the other half, leaving each listener to individually complete the whole picture. Elle, two days after her long-term lover left, is delighted at first to get a call from him, and lies about her previous evening out with her friend Marthe. They reminisce about good times, but when it transpires that her lover only phoned to get his love letters and photos back, things become very edgy and fraught. The phone line is not good, and another person appears on the party line, but they play “I can’t hear you” games. She phones him back, but he is not at his number, and when they finally reconnect, she confesses that she took 12 sleeping pills to try to end it all, but fortunately had the presence of mind to call Marthe who, at four in the morning, brought a doctor to the rescue. The swirl of high emotion and farce is intoxicating, as “his” dog cowers away from the highly-strung Elle who hears music down the phone suggesting her lover is not where he claims to be. Finally, the lover calls back as Elle retreats to bed with her telephone, the red cord and his voice wrapped around her neck.

Soprano Filipa Portela, who also produced and directed, was an explosive and theatrically visceral tour de force as Elle, throwing herself completely into this musically demanding role. She was like a caged animal in her apartment, restlessly wandering about, peering through a wooden chair back, rummaging around her possessions, all the time tied to her red telephone. Her strong bright soprano was one moment tender in reminiscence, then bristling in fury at her lover and finally resigned in an empty world-weariness.

Pianist Kristine Donnan’s dramatic interpretation matched Portela’s mood by mood in a perfect dynamic relationship, her startling playing tinged with brooding anger and frustration, and peppered with dramatic pauses. Simple, effective lighting from Anna-Madeleine Poll added atmosphere to this short, thrillingly unpredictable piece and riveting Edinburgh Fringe event.

****1