Opera North at Sadler’s Wells – La Voix Humaine

La voix humaine

The woman – Joan Rodgers

Orchestra of Opera North
Paul Watkins

Deborah Warner – Director
Tom Pye – Set & Costumes
Jean Kalman – Lighting design
Tom Pye & Joel Cahan – Video design

Reviewed by: Alexander Campbell

Reviewed: 22 November, 2006
Venue: Sadler's Wells Theatre, London

Poulenc’s short monodrama is a relative rarity on the operatic stage, not least because it makes huge demands on the performer who must sustain the intensity of the drama over the 45-minute course of the piece. This is no easy task when so much of the text is repetitive and conversational, and there are few ‘big tunes’ to get ones teeth into. By definition the role of the desperate and suicidal woman is one that requires considerable acting ability as well. So it requires an excellent singing-actress. Few sopranos dare to take the role on and Opera North is lucky to have Joan Rodgers as one so ready to take on all the challenges.

It almost goes without saying that she sings the role most beautifully, and managed to get a huge amount of shading into the vocal line. The relatively rare excursions high above the stave come at some of the character’s most desperate moments and these have a deliberate rawness of tone that is absolutely right. Elsewhere she is gently cajoling of her former lover as well as persistently needling into her character’s more emotionally manipulative moments and icily controlled when not quite getting her way. The gentlest moment was when she was speaking to Joseph, the former lover’s manservant, when he has evidently told her that his master is not at home. She bade farewell to him with a warmth both truthful and touching.

If there is a dimension lacking then perhaps it is humour. The situation has its (tragi-) comic moments, such as the crossed phone lines, disconnections, and the presence of a nosey woman on the line, and even the passage about the lover’s dog: these could have been played up a little more. These absurd moments tell one a great deal about the character and perhaps make you care about her a little more – but one suspects this omission was a deliberate reading by director and performer.

Given that the piece is so much about the text it must be said that every word was audible – no mean feat. Given this, the “franglais” version used, in which some of the French terms of endearment, and “Oui” and “Non” are retained, is perhaps a little artificial and distracting on occasion. Better to have simply performed the whole text in English.

As befits the subject matter, Poulenc’s musical score is not his most coloured. The orchestra provides a sure support for Joan Rodgers, and in the lush, lyrical moments Paul Watkins allowed the sound to bloom and the volume to surge, and remind that the orchestra is very much part of the piece. One advantage of playing “La voix humaine” on its own rather than as part of a double bill (what can it be effectively coupled with anyway?) is that the orchestral players are able to focus all their energies into the piece.

Deborah Warner’s staging is sure, and she and Rodgers manage to chart the gradual deterioration in the woman’s emotional state – from her first gulping of tablets before the phone initially rings right through to her final desperate suicide attempt by cutting her veins and asphyxiation. Tom Pye’s elegant designs are attractive, if slightly lacking in a sense of claustrophobia that might have bought atmospheric enhancement. Perhaps this is not helped by the piece being played in as large an auditorium as at Sadler’s Wells.

Opera North’s continued exploration of shorter operatic works continues to reveal much – both to the seasoned opera-goer and to the newcomer. Long may this continue.

  • A further London performance of “La voix humaine” on 24 November at 8 o’clock, and one in Newcastle upon Tyne on 30 November
  • Sadler’s Wells
  • Opera North

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