Cocteau Voices at Linbury Studio Theatre [Duet for One Voice … La voix humaine]

Duet for One Voice
Dance piece based on Jean Cocteau’s play Le bel indifférent Choreography by Aletta Collins, music composed and arranged by Scott Walker [ROH2 commission: world premiere]

Conor Doyle, Omar Gordon, Daniel Hay-Gordon, HyeKyoung Kim, Lorena Randi & Polly Eachus (dancers)
Tom Cairns – Designer
Charles Balfour – Lighting design

La voix humaine
Monologue by Jean Cocteau set to music by Francis Poulenc [Production commissioned by ROH2]

Woman – Nuccia Focile
Southbank Sinfonia
Garry Walker
Tom Cairns – Director & Designer


Reviewed by: Peter Reed

Reviewed: 17 June, 2011
Venue: Linbury Studio Theatre at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London

Love – or, rather, its absence and withdrawal – releases its addictive poison into the Cocteau dance/opera double-bill created by choreographer Aletta Collins and director/designer Tom Cairns.

Duet for One Voice, a dance piece to an electronic score by Scott Walker, takes its cue from a monologue Jean Cocteau wrote for a man in the throes of a failing love-affair, which he later (in 1940) reworked for Edith Piaf, the victim in a hopeless relationship with a man who couldn’t care less about her. The re-title was Le bel indifférent, which could be translated as ‘handsome but indifferent’ but which was anglicised more loosely as Duet for One Voice. Aletta Collins’s version, which could reasonably be called ‘La belle indifférente’, puts a woman, perhaps one should say Woman, in the driving seat. She sits in a red armchair reading Le Monde. She is oblivious to the seething chaos and anxiety acted out all around her by five dancers, the three men aspects of the one ignored lover, desperate for some response, and by turns furious, frustrated and miserable that it is not forthcoming, the two women dancers expressing the fantasy and bitterness of the non-existent love-affair.

The movement, detailed, athletic and highly charged, doesn’t tip over the edge into mere exaggerated histrionics, which is more than be said for Scott Walker’s overwrought score, a soundscape worthy of the name. The 1960s’ soulful pop star, now a venerable, reclusive and romantic composer/cult icon, has indulged his taste for apocalyptic portentousness with knobs on. Fragments of melody from sampled sax, trumpet and cello vie with animal-like snarling and that well-worked alienation trope of electronic scores, sorry, soundscapes, the magnified sound of dripping water. I’ve got an idea that Cocteau had in mind something a bit, a lot, more intimate, but, as a generator for the detailed dance, Walker’s doom-laden earnestness is admirably over-the-top. At the end of this half-hour marathon of lovelessness, one of the dancers prized away the newspaper from the nerveless fingers of the woman. She had fallen asleep with indifference – perhaps the music wasn’t loud enough.

The same armchair figures in Tom Cairns’s 1950s set for his new staging of La voix humaine, Poulenc’s 1959 setting of Cocteau’s monologue for a woman, alone in her Paris apartment, talking on the phone for the last time to the lover who has just left her. The bedroom set, dominated by a hideous, French rococo-revisited bed, is a genteelly squalid prototype of Tracey Emin’s notorious installation, as precisely observed as the other character in the drama, the Bakelite phone on its long lead, with all its vagaries of crossed lines and being cut off by human operators (remember them?).

Some performances of La voix humaine can be so extreme as to make Powder her Face blush. Nuccia Focile played it straight, with disarming truthfulness, and with just a few, very telling histrionic moments. Her light soprano recalls that of Denise Duval, who first sang the role. Focile was superbly natural in her presentation of a conversation of which we only hear one side, and her wheedling pleas and threats to her ex-lover, expressed in the familiar intimacy that is about to be history, was just how it is – unbearable, an Erwartung with manners or a Marschallin who cannot let go with middle-aged, dignified resignation. Focile has the full measure of how the role sits in between speech and song, so that the moments of unbridled lyricism came as quite a shock; and her continental delivery of the cleverly French-inflected English translation gave it a sexy exoticism. She was very impressive.

Garry Walker kept Southbank Sinfonia on a tight, hyper-responsive rein, so that you could hear clearly how Poulenc piles on the agony, from the light relief of 1950s’ telephonic technology to her wrapping her ex-lover’s voice around her neck. Great stuff!

  • Further performances at 7.45 p.m. until Saturday 25 June [no performances on 21 & 23]
  • Box office: 020 7304 4000
  • Royal Opera

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