La Voix humaine – tragédie lyrique in one Act to a libretto by Jean Cocteau [sung in French, with English surtitles]
Les Mamelles de Tirésias – opéra bouffe in a prologue and two Acts to a libretto by the composer based on the play by Apollinaire [sung in French, with English surtitles]
Elle – Stéphanie d’Oustrac [Voix humaine]
Theatre director – Gyula Orendt
Thérèse – Elsa Benoit
The Husband – Régis Mengus
Monsieur Presto – Christophe Gay
Monsieur Lacouf – François Piolino
The Policeman – Gyula Orendt
The Parisian Journalist – Loïc Félix
The Son – James Way
The Newspaper Seller – Julie Pasturaud
The Elegant Lady – Rhiain Taylor
Fortune Teller – Elsa Benoit
London Philharmonic Orchestra
Laurent Pelly – Director
Caroline Ginet – Set Designer
Laurent Pelly in collaboration with Jean-Jacque Delmotte – Costume Designer
Urs Schönebaum – Lighting Designer
Reviewed by: Peter Reed
Reviewed: 23 August, 2022
Venue: Glyndebourne Festival, Lewes, East Sussex
Poulenc’s double-bill of La Voix humaine and Les Mamelles de Tirésias gives us extremes of what it can be to be a woman, enough to keep Women’s Hour on the boil even longer than women’s football, and you could see why La Voix, about a woman being cast aside by her lover, came before the interval, followed by the larky, tongue-in-cheek feminism of Les Mamelles, which had the post-dinner audience in fits of laughter. Laurent Pelly’s staging for both works didn’t refer to each other, but the basics of Caroline Ginet’s two sets were similarly abstract and elegant, in La Voix just a mobile platform – or perhaps a shelf? – with panels sliding to focus on the gathering isolation of ‘Elle’, all alone by the telephone, with a fading sliver of light hinting at her next move.
Stéphanie d’Oustrac (Poulenc’s great-niece, born after his death) sang and inflected Cocteau’s text so clearly you almost didn’t need surtitles, and she gave a devastating and accurate account of a woman marshalling manipulation, pointless examination and emotional blackmail as the abyss opens out beneath her, an erosion of everything that leaves ‘Elle’ in a ‘ell not all of her making. La Voix (1958) is a long way from the gentle, sly humour of Menotti’s The Telephone, written a decade earlier, but both prove that our so-called connective technology is a gift to opera that looks like it will never stop giving, whether you like it or not. D’Oustrac’s performance was such that it was a relief to think you needn’t put yourself through that again in a hurry.
I doubt ‘Elle’ would have derived much stiffening from Thérèse’s staunch feminism in Les Mamelles de Tirésias (Glyndebourne’s first production), in which Thérèse has had it up to here with babies and tells her uxorious, bacon-loving husband to go forth and multiply all by himself and see how he likes it. Cue breasts floating into the sky and bursting, Thérèse changing into a man, and the now snugly corseted husband fending off an over-interested policeman and holing up in his man-space laboratory to experiment in making babies, eventually siring 40,049 of them, faithfully reproduced by the staging’s amazing vision of bawling infants stretching into infinity.
Apollinaire wrote his play soon after the First World War to exhort the French to have lots of children, and Poulenc composed his version just before the end of the Second World War as a zany, surrealist romp with the same message and its ear tuned to virtually any French composer you care to think of, especially Chabrier and smirking Offenbach, with generous dashes of Stravinsky bitters, all of it tailored perfectly by Poulenc’s skill at moving in an instant from Carry On sauce to eye-pricking tenderness.
Pelly’s direction is funny and full of itself, the sets and costume designs are like cartoons in primary colours, and Pelly doesn’t attempt to involve current trans and gender politics for the greater good of clarity and relevance. Leading a predominantly French cast, Elsa Benoit is sassy and chic as Thérèse, with a reservoir of sharpness in her soubrette singing, Régis Mengus channels his seductive baritone in much the same way as Aidan Turner channels a scythe and is gifted with split-second comic timing, Gyula Orendt stayed just this side of the MC in Cabaret for the Theatre Director’s faux-solemn introduction, and to describe the smaller roles as zesty is to undersell them.
The intelligence and understanding that radiated from Robin Ticciati and the LPO players in Poulenc’s score were in a league of their own. If only Poulenc had written more operas, apart, of course, from Les Carmélites which Glyndebourne is mounting next year.