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BWW Review: OPERA PHILA'S LA VOIX HUMAINE at Home Computer Screens


A Psychological Study of Losing a Lover

BWW Review: OPERA PHILA'S LA VOIX HUMAINE at Home Computer Screens On September 24, 2021, Opera Philadelphia premiered its stream of Jean Cocteau and Francis Poulenc's 1958 opera La Voix Humaine (The Human Voice). Director James Darrah shot the film at the ornately gilded Elkins estate, a Renaissance style manor built in Europe. Renowned French interior decor experts Allard et Fils designed the rooms that production designer Tony Fanning used in the film. The entire building was later shipped to Cheltenham township in Pennsylvania where it is a most unusual work of art.

The Comédie-Française premiered Cocteau's monodrama La Voix Humaine in 1930, but it only became an opera twenty-eight years later. Although Poulenc's publisher wanted him to write the opera for Maria Callas, the composer preferred to cast Denise Duval as Elle, a stand-in for every deserted lover in the world. Elle goes from invoking sweet memories to rage and despair, none which make the lover on the other end of the phone want to reconnect with her. The forty-minute musical work gives the soprano a wide range for dramatic expression.

Although the technical state of telephone conversation in the 1950s becomes evident when the connection is lost and wrong numbers come on the line, this psychological one-act opera is truly a piece for our time of COVID-19 physical isolation. Phones are one of the few ways around our inability to engage in physical contact with each other.

Soprano Patricia Racette is enthralling as she engages with each twist and turn of the score as though it is an emotional punch. She created this role in several cities and in each she has pulled the audience into the immediacy of Elle's predicament. Camera work that shows the aftermath of a failed love affair also helps the create the character of Elle.

Poulenc wrote that he wanted his one-act, one-person opera, "bathed in the greatest orchestral sensuality." I miss Poulenc's ardent and sometimes erotic orchestration, but the single piano presents the situation on its sharpest edge. Singing with an orchestra would have dulled Elle's cries, Christopher Allen's eloquent, well-articulated piano rendition makes Elle's emotional situation sharp and adds dramatic emphasis to her emotional abandonment, while his tempi keep the performance moving forward.

Since the pain of Elle's abandonment is audible in every colorful sound of Racette's voice, I began to wonder if it is Elle's constant need for affirmation that causes her lover to leave her. There are only a few moments of respite. Elle does remember good times, but she cannot seem to concentrate on them for more than second. Costume Designer Christi Karvonides highlights these episodes with imaginative outfits that intrigue the eye while placing the action in its actual temporal setting.

Now, in autumn 2021, Racette and Darrah bring their acclaimed rendition of La Voix Humaine to the screen in a new film adaptation of the 1958 French monodrama. It streams on the Opera Philadelphia Channel beginning on Friday, September 24. The film is available for rent for $20.
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