The evening begins with La Voix Humaine: “Elle” is staring at us fixedly for what seems like a minute, smoke from the cigarette in her fingers providing the only movement. She sits in an oblong frame surrounded by light bulbs, indicating a substantial mirror of the sort you might find backstage. The orchestra begins, and the music is edgy. She snatches the black receiver to her ear when a call comes through, but lines get crossed, very frustratingly, and an operator has to assist. When she does get in touch with the lover who has kept her as a mistress and now wants his letters back, it becomes clear that this is a final contact. The stage opens up and the mirror switches round, but there is more than her reflection in it: the man she is speaking to makes sporadic appearances in evening dress. She puts on a green housecoat. Her red dress hangs ready.

Lesley Garrett and Philip Rhodes in La voix humaine © Tristram Kenton
Lesley Garrett and Philip Rhodes in La voix humaine
© Tristram Kenton

Poulenc’s telephonic opera, based on a Jean Cocteau play with the same title, is less than three quarters of an hour long, and it possesses an emotional force stronger than many longer works, so it needs a very special performer behind it. And there are few sopranos who could pull it off better than Lesley Garrett, who began her operatic career with Opera North, and who has now returned to the Grand Theatre, to the delight of her many admirers. How she can act! She conveys wonderfully the various stages of distress, the dignity which slips away to suicidal desperation, and the woman’s awful guilt: ironically, Elle takes the blame for the break-up upon herself as we catch a glimpse of the ex-lover with her replacement. She makes Poulenc’s melodic flourishes and climaxes stand out, gem-like.

I guess that it was emotionally draining for Garrett, just as it was for those of us watching and listening like a mass of discomforted eavesdroppers. It must have been a pig to learn, but the overjoyed audience was definitely convinced that it had been worth it: several voices could be heard shouting for her to do it all over again.

More links can be made between La Voix Humaine and Dido and Aeneas than I thought possible. Some are straightforward. Dido is played by Pamela Helen Stephen, who also appeared with Opera North early in her career (in 1991), and both operas have abandoned lovers who become suicidal at their hearts. This version of the Purcell masterpiece has a strong enigmatic quality, and the stylish green housecoat last seen on the shoulders of Elle reappears on those of Dido – and is then multiplied to be worn by a whole troupe of dancing witches led by a sorceress, with black lingerie worn underneath. Green must mean bad luck, as in plays by Anton Chekhov. The red dress returns and multiplies as well, becoming not just a sign of passion but of wicked mockery, because after Aeneas decides that his duty to found Rome is more important than his love for Dido, the predatory occultist women stare at her with playful malevolence and ridicule every move she makes in a series of fascinating burlesques, smartly choreographed by director Aletta Collins and Shelby Williams. It all connects with the mirror theme: there are so many reflections in this production that at times it becomes completely surreal, as if inspired by René Magritte. Forget that historical commentary about Purcell and Nahum Tate bringing in a sorceress to represent Roman Catholicism!

Stephen conveys desperation and her condition as a victim of circumstances with great skill, her voice full of amour, then deep and gentle as she moves towards the inevitable suicide, her life meaningless. At one point, the dancers get into her contemplations and, one by one, writhe down as victims of stabbings, hanging and poison, and it gets perilously close to comedy, like a game of wink-murder. Even so, Stephen’s rendition of the Lament is properly moving.

Amy Freston sings with her usual sweetness and charm as Belinda, and Philip Rhodes, appearing for the first time with Opera North, brings a powerful presence to Aeneas, coming into his own with “Yours be the blame, ye gods!” The chorus is full of adrenaline and Nicholas Watts makes a too-fleeting appearance to sing the Sailor’s Song.

The pairing of these two operas was a brilliant idea. Thoughtful and imaginative productions have ensured that it has been successful.