LSO & Barbara Hannigan

La voix humaine [sung in French with English surtitles]

London Symphony Orchestra
Barbara Hannigan (soprano)

Clemens Malinowski – video direction

Reviewed by: David Truslove

Reviewed: 24 February, 2022
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

A lament for lost German culture and a monologue of handwringing fervour have trauma as their starting point. If Richard Strauss and Francis Poulenc make unlikely bedfellows, these late works of loss and abandonment were intended to provide an evening of emotional intensity, although the outcome fell short of expectations.

As the LSO’s newly appointed Associate Artist, nobody can deny the talent of Barbara Hannigan, and express awe for her capacity to conduct and sing with such remarkable flair. With these gifts Poulenc’s forty-minute score was surely tailor-made for her. La voix humaine (1958) was written for Denise Duval and based on a 1930 monologue by Jean Cocteau. Poulenc’s tragédie-lyrique is the final “adieu” of a heartbroken woman known only as Elle who has been deserted by her lover. Charted through a string of broken telephone conversations, her pain, pleas, self-delusion and final parting is one of Poulenc’s most personal creations in which we feel every momentary shift in mood. However, in Hannigan’s video introduction she leans more towards the idea of Elle as a fantasist pursuing the fiction of how love and loss might feel. With an interpretation suggesting Elle’s lover is a fabrication our sympathies are cooled.

Casually dressed in dark jeans and T-shirt, Hannigan conducts and sings away from the audience, mostly facing a large screen that projects (through three cameras) her movement and expression. That she has her back to us much of the time significantly dilutes the emotional impact. Screen closeups enable us to see enhanced images of clenched hands, furrowed brows and frantic expressions, while from behind we see conducting and acting fused as she boxes the air in frustration while ‘talking’ to a telephone operator. Hannigan’s control of the pace and abrupt mood swings is brilliantly achieved, and the LSO was on exemplary form. Yet this performance was less about Elle’s emotional disintegration, but more about Hannigan’s manipulation of Cocteau’s text and by the end I was unmoved.

Earlier there had been a fluent account of Strauss’s Metamorphosen, conceived as an outpouring of grief for lost German culture during the closing stages of the Second World War. The work unfolded with considerable polish, its trajectory sustained by mostly forward-moving paragraphs that clearly illuminated the rich polyphony. But for all the meticulous preparation the account often felt too understated to have any sense of trauma or fulfil the “searing wordless elegy”. Only towards the end when the jarring entries of the ‘Funeral March’ (from Beethoven’s ‘Eroica’) became ever more insistent did Hannigan raise the work’s emotional temperature. A masterpiece of romanticism in its death agony this was not, but there was no doubting the technical control.

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