An opera for a singer and a piano – not yet the consequences of this week’s Arts Council cuts, thankfully, but Finnish soprano Karita Mattila’s conscious translation of her Total Karita stage show she performed in Helsinki in the spring (a stream is available until 18th November) to the somewhat more bijoux dimensions of London’s Wigmore Hall. 

Loading image...
Karita Mattila in La Voix humaine
© Heikki Tuuli, courtesy of Finnish National Opera

Poulenc’s 45-minute monologue La Voix humaine is one of the most unlikely of operas, depicting one side of a telephone conversation to a libretto by Jean Cocteau that, read out of its musical context, must be about the most banal in the repertoire. But Poulenc’s music turns it into a miniature masterpiece, one that Mattila has truly made her own, using all her considerable acting and vocal resources to take the audience into the mind of ‘Elle’, the nameless woman whose relationship break-up we witness in real time as she battles both with her emotions and a flaky party line.

Anyone who has travelled on public transport has probably experienced something akin to being an unwilling fly on the wall in such circumstances. And Mattila’s performance, acted out in full on the Wigmore stage with just a couple of chairs, tables and other props for company, had something of this prurience about it: the sentiments all seemed so personal and private, no more so than when she describes her suicide attempt, yet so compelling was her stage presence that one just couldn’t look away. Along with diction and vocal expression that almost made the programme’s English translation of Cocteau’s French superfluous, Mattila’s control of projection, consistency of tone and her sheer artistry made this a moving performance to treasure.

La Voix humaine may have lost its orchestra in this instance, but Keval Shah performed miracles in making larger forces seem almost superfluous in his constantly shape-shifting playing of Poulenc’s piano reduction. Maybe one missed the particular plangency of the composer’s orchestral sound, especially as the drama heads towards its painful conclusion, but Shah brought plenty of colour of his own.

Mattila described the second part of this recital as encores, but this ‘Torch Song Quartet’ of songs from German cabaret and the American Songbook seemed to carry on from where the Poulenc leaves off, beginning with the new hope of the Gershwins’ The Man I Love. She seamlessly eased herself into Marlene Dietrich territory with a smokily sung account of Hollaender’s Ich bin von Kopf bis Fuss auf Liebe Eingestellt, otherwise known in English as Falling in Love Again. Mattila then cheekily switched to the Finnish language for Theo Mackeben’s 1939 movie number Nur nicht aus Liebe weinen before ending in full diva flow with Burt Bacharach’s perennial anti-war song What the World Needs Now Is Love