When I saw the description of this program in the first announcement of Opera Philadelphia’s O18 Festival, I happily anticipated “an intimate performance of French art and cabaret songs, followed by one of opera’s most powerful monodramas, La voix humaine…” I love these vocal miniatures, while Francis Poulenc’s 1958 work, based on Jean Cocteau’s play, has unfailingly moved me whenever I have experienced it; the monodrama’s original piano version would replace the orchestra generally heard. Knowing that the star was Patricia Racette, I found it easy to imagine her doing full justice to both halves of the evening, since neither one would tax her vocally as some recent operatic efforts have done. She is also a versatile actress, perfect to portray the bereft woman talking to her lover on the telephone, desperately trying not to lose him.

Patricia Racette (Elle) © Dominic M Mercier
Patricia Racette (Elle)
© Dominic M Mercier

Learning later that the ‘Prologue’ would instead offer “only” Poulenc chansons sung by a young baritone, I was even happier: after all, the composer wrote most of his songs for the superb French baritone Pierre Bernac (his partner) and his unique musical language wafts through songs and monodrama alike. An all-Poulenc mini-marathon was a great idea.

Even my next discovery, that director James Darrah’s ‘reimagining’ was inspired by Cocteau’s films, writings and life, seemed an intriguing plan, so long as it didn’t interfere with the music. The venue made sense: the small, dark (but wildly lit when called for), slightly run-down and vaguely menacing 1970s hot spot, the Theater of Living Arts, became a struggling Paris “rock-club” circa 1979, with some clever scenic elements by Tony Fanning. I figured that the bedroom setting of La Voix humaine could easily be created on the stage.

Marc Bendavid (Paul) and Edward Nelson (Le Jeune Homme) © Dominic M Mercier
Marc Bendavid (Paul) and Edward Nelson (Le Jeune Homme)
© Dominic M Mercier

Ultimately, Darrah, who apparently has a penchant for the lurid and disgusting (Opera Philadelphia’s 2016 Breaking the Waves), got carried away, introducing the incestuous siblings Paul and Lise from the movie Les Enfants terribles and with them uninterrupted noisy, grotesque mayhem. Poulenc’s wonderful Banalités and Chansons gaillardes, sung by Edward Nelson with a pleasant voice and as much interpretation as could be detected, were often overwhelmed by the shouting, arguing, hectic dashing about, and sexual variations, mostly aggressive and obnoxious. Try singing anything, not just Poulenc, when blindfolded, hands tied behind you, a strap across your body, while on your knees, sitting back, being mauled from behind.

The onstage chaos seemed to go on forever. Periodic recitations of texts in French and English created moments of calm but soon became monotonous. Rarely has an intermission been more welcome, or a drink at a theater bar.

Darrah should have left well enough alone, Nelson singing the songs he was assigned, perhaps Racette some others, especially as Darrah turned her into an aging cabaret singer discussed in the Prologue, and there is a poster of her somewhere. As La voix opens, “Elle” is apparently in the cabaret, moving between piano and tables, or is she just getting home from there? She is in a leopard jacket but (as she later describes to her lover) in negligée (black). No, there is no bedroom. The phone must have an extremely long cord, for her to cover the distances she does.

Christopher Allen and Patricia Racette (Elle) © Adam Larsen
Christopher Allen and Patricia Racette (Elle)
© Adam Larsen

After a while, such musings mattered only intermittently. The intensity of the text and the extraordinary dramatic connection of the music to it, whether for voice or piano, and Racette’s projection of Elle’s every nuance were totally riveting. Though the audience hears only her, in what could seem a very long monologue, Cocteau makes the pauses become the unheard words of the lover (and those of the operator, the woman on the party line and the lover’s valet). Poulenc gives the ever-changing emotions a vast musical range, in which Racette moved easily and subtly, her voice smooth and solid in all but the occasional extreme uppermost notes. Her French was quite good, thankfully. Even though Poulenc stated that he wanted people to sing his works in their own language, and in Italy, I did hear this one in Italian, I cannot imagine La Voix humaine in anything but French, and thank James Darrah for feeling the same.

Music Director and pianist Christopher Allen offered artistic salvation from beginning to end, including his rendition of Poulenc’s Intermezzo no. 3 during the opening scene before The Pianist makes the fatal error of inviting some friends over.

***11