Opera Philadelphia continues its strong streaming pivot with La Voix humaine by capitalizing on the intimacy needed to successfully carry off Poulenc’s 1958 monodrama. James Darrah previously staged this work with soprano Patricia Racette at Theatre of Living Arts, a seedy and slightly rundown rock club in Philly, where the main character Elle was envisioned as a 1970s diseuse and the performance itself became a cabaret act. Here, director and star take a different approach that’s closer to Jean Cocteau’s text, which portrays a woman unraveling as a prisoner to loneliness and longing. Rather than being part of her audience, as we were then, the distance of the camera and screen allows us viewers at home to focus on the audience that really matters: the unseen lover whose return Elle implores.

Patricia Racette (Elle)
© Michael Elias Thomas

Filmed prior to the pandemic, the production uses the elegant Elkins Estate in suburban Philadelphia as its setting. The choice might seem slightly incongruous considering the elements of the libretto that identify Elle is middle-class – her telephone conversation takes place on a party line, after all – but it also suggests that despair and self-pity can creep into even the most well-appointed quarters. If Elle is an everywoman, as her generic name suggests, then her problems naturally cross financial divides.

Set designer Tony Fanning effectively translates Elle’s mental disquiet to her physical surroundings. Her stylish drawing room is strewn with fading magazines, discarded articles of clothing and empty cigarette packs. Half-spent tumblers of Scotch decorate each end table. Chrisi Karvonides-Dushenko’s costumes further give the impression of haute status on the decline. She outfits Racette in a loud leopard-print coat – a piece that falls somewhere between fashionable and tacky – worn over a sheer black nightgown, as if Elle began to dress herself in a state of unconscious fury. It is all of a piece with the agitated psychological tenor of the work. 

Darrah has emerged as a master of translating opera to the screen over the past 18 months, and here, he shows his skill at using the camera to capture the miniature moments that ultimately coalesce into Elle’s tragic narrative. Working with cinematographer Michael Elias Thomas, he balances wide shots and close-ups, effectively using the former to accentuate Elle’s rootlessness in her grand, empty estate and the latter to show how quickly her mood changes during the one-sided telephone conversation. Some moments sparkle in an entirely new way – watch for the sly twinkle in Racette’s eyes when she describes her outfit, telling her lover she still has her hat on. (She’s lying.) Watch too for the way that Racette’s face, caught in a canted angle, changes from enraptured bliss to abject terror as Elle realizes she’s been cut off.

As a singer and an actor, Racette proves an ideal partner throughout. Her characterization of Elle has only deepened in the time since she first performed the role live, and the steely edge of her bright, focused soprano suits the anxious vocal lines perfectly. Sunlight creeps into her voice in ecstatic moments, turning her sound girlish and expectant when she believes that her lover will return to her.

She is also skilled at shifting from the present conversation to internal monologue, as when she describes her suicide attempt – a dreamless sleep that turns into a euphoric memory of carnal connection. Looking in her bathroom mirror, applying makeup and brushing her hair, Racette leaves uncertain whether Elle truly understands the dangerous situation she’s put herself in for her unfulfilled love or if she’s still lost in illusion. (This directorial choice calls back to Elle's admission that she doesn't dare turn on her bathroom light, for fear of finding an old woman in her looking-glass.) Her voice similarly teeters to its limits, almost turning sharp in service to the untethered moment. Here and throughout, Racette blurs the line between performer and character with superb dedication.

Poulenc’s score contains the elements we expect from his music – melodies at once lush and harsh, vocal writing that expresses beauty and horror simultaneously – but I find it less interesting than Dialogues des Carmélites or Gloria, and it can wear out its welcome even at just 40 minutes. Heard here in a piano reduction, it comes across as well as I’ve ever experienced it, with Christopher Allen matching Racette’s rising sense of instability while maintaining a level of control in the dramatic tension. Allen, Racette and Darrah resist melodramatic excess throughout, and in doing so, they create a Voix humaine that is recognizably, uncomfortably, thrillingly human.

 

 This performance was reviewed from the Opera Philadelphia video stream

****1