I grew up in a world where an intermittent telephone connection – even internationally – was a rarity. But with mobile and Internet telephony, we’ve returned to an era where we understand how bad it can get to have difficult conversations over fractured connections: as Mark Valencia explained in an excellent pre-show talk, this was a situation very familiar to Jean Cocteau in the 1930s, when he wrote his one-act monologue La Voix humaine, turned into an opera by Francis Poulenc in 1959.
One thing, however, has remained a constant through the ages: the most painful conversations of all are those at the break-up of a long love affair, the more so where the break-up is one sided. Cocteau overheard such a conversation over a misconnected line: his ensuing play and Poulenc’s opera stare with unflinching eyes at the nastiest circumstances of all: when the abandoned party feels both suicidally desperate and guilty. We feel the pain of the woman we are watching, whose name we we never know, and we feel it most because she is continually apologising for herself.
Unlike several more recent opera composers, Poulenc understands instinctively that you can’t make a tragedy by having 40 minutes of uninterrupted tension, and his music is masterly in its alternation between light and shade. The woman has moments of anguish where the music is indeed hard and anguished. But her entire nature has been to project tenderness while wearing a mask of attractive, carefree vivacity, and the music ebbs to and fro between the tension and those lyrical moments, which Poulenc delivers in the sublime four-note harmonies so characteristic of French impressionism.
Last night’s performance, in the Elgar Room upstairs at the Royal Albert Hall, represents the continuation of efforts by Opera Holland Park to spread their wings outside their usual home. For the occasion, they engaged their favourite leading lady, Anne-Sophie Duprels, who delivered everything they could have asked for. La Voix humaine is the defining example of a prima le parole opera: the most important thing is for every line of the text both to be delivered both with crystal clarity and to be inflected with the rapidly shifting mood of the woman as the mask of vivacity shatters and she desperately, repeatedly tries to patch it up. Duprels generated expression with every syllable; she drew us into empathising with her at every stage. Friends of mine who are devotees of straight drama can complain about the acting quality in opera: no such complaints could be levelled here. Since the Elgar Room is a relatively small space, there was no need for Duprels to overstretch her voice into harshness or to overdo the vibrato, so we could hear her voice at its sweetest.
Before writing the orchestration most commonly performed, Poulenc wrote La Voix humaine with a piano score, and that was the version presented here, with no less a pianist than Pascal Rogé at the keyboard. Rogé has an extensive discography of French repertoire, so this is music that he simply laps up, perfectly angular in the accompaniment to distress, meltingly lyrical in the tender parts.
For all its good points, however, and in spite of the fact that La Voix humaine lasts only 40 minutes or so, the work felt too long for me, which I put down to two reasons. The first lies in the silences: in the best works where you are listening to one side of a conversation (the comic monologues of Bob Newhart are the defining examples), when the gaps come, you are able to reconstruct in your head precisely what the unseen other party is saying. Cocteau’s dialogue never quite reaches that level, and it eventually becomes wearing that you’re spending the gaps trying to figure out what’s being said at the other end of the phone. The second is that La Voix humaine eventually becomes repetitive: it’s not that the exact same music or words repeat, but that the precise pattern of emotions recurs sufficiently often that their effect starts to get diluted.
These cavils apart, Opera Holland Park will be deservedly delighted at last night’s performance: a chance to introduce their audiences to an opera that isn’t performed all that often, and a perfect vehicle for Anne-Sophie Duprels to demonstrate her talents as a singing actor and Rogé to show us how a piano can tell us so much about the colour and intelligence of Poulenc’s harmonic writing.
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