Hampstead & Highgate Festival 2007: La Voix Humaine

La voix humaine

Ilona Domnich (soprano) & Sergey Rybin (piano)

Sebastian Harcombe – director

Reviewed by: Kenneth Carter

Reviewed: 17 May, 2007
Venue: Rosslyn Hill Chapel, Rosslyn Hill, Hampstead, London NW3

The origin is a monologue by Jean Cocteau, first performed in 1932. Poulenc’s musical version was first performed in 1959 at the Opéra-Comique – a chamber-orchestral version. This performance had piano accompaniment only.

Rosslyn Hill Chapel made a small-scale but gravely majestic setting. Stained-glass Victorian Gothic windows, heavy with stone, seemed to gaze down on the bare suggestions of a living room – a red upholstered armchair, a side table, a telephone, scattered love-letters and photographs. A table lamp with a large round shade stood on the floor, casting bright, partial light on the drabness of the room and on the desolation of its occupant.

The text, the music – the opera, indeed – consists almost entirely of short, conversational phrases and pauses. The language is everyday – the telephone manner is reticent and restrained. Occasional outbursts of impatience and frustration at the operator, the party-line interrupter and the phone being cut off indicate the pent-up agony and distress of the caller. For the most part – when speaking to her ex-lover, he who is to marry another woman in two days’ time – she is most concerned to maintain contact, a flow of conversation, to remain quiet, controlled and “sensible”. Even when discussing her overdose of pills or, at the end, how she has just wound the telephone chord around her neck, she remains factual. This calmness expresses deep, deep despair and desolation – suffering too deep for tears.

Poulenc responds marvellously to this text. His music is broken, halting then flowing then halting, varied. It ranges from heaviness to lightness, distinguishing nicely between fragments of genuine gaiety and moments of brittle falsity. The few outbursts of quasi-lyricism are heart-breaking because they are rare, brief and unexpected. Cocteau wrote to Poulenc: “My dear Francis, you have found the only way to say my text.” This is, indeed, the truth of the piece. Unobtrusively, Poulenc’s music enhances the text inherently, as if Cocteau’s original had been defective until a means of singing it had been found.

Ilona Domnich was unforgettable in this lengthy, demanding and harrowing role. She responded skilfully to every nuance in the text – her voice found countless varieties of light and shade. Poulenc’s writing sat comfortably in the middle register of her voice. It never became monotonous, tedious or grating. She also, it must be said, responded adroitly and sensitively to sympathetic direction. I felt I was watching something natural and real – a human being in distress, desperate, trying to cope with the ugliness of a life that held out no hope for her. This was an amazing performance in one so young.

Sergey Rybin’s accompaniment was authoritative and mesmerising. I liked the bareness of juxtaposing a single musical instrument with a single human voice. Deprived of the colour of orchestral instrumentation, the accompaniment took on an utterly appropriate spareness. Sometimes this was commentary, often quite terse; at other times this was turbulent – hinting at the turmoil which the lady dare not let show on the phone. Even the silences spoke. The style ranged from gruffness to tenderness, from brusqueness to delicacy. Rybin reminded me of Boris Berezovsky in the range of his command and understanding of this work of art.

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