BWW Review: POULENC'S LA VOIX HUMAINE, King's Place
Elle is alone, covering up her disintegrating life with lies about her socialite gadding about in demi-mondeish Paris, lies told as much to convince herself as her lover, who hangs on the other end of the phone. We don't hear from him, but we know what he's feeling - guilt about the break-up, but nevertheless determined to "move on", while Elle is stuck in denial and despair.
Though Jean Cocteau's source play was written in the 1930s and Poulenc's one act opera premiered in 1959, the tale is a universal one - we all need somebody, but that somebody doesn't always need (or even want) us. The technological twist Poulenc threw sixty years ago (the entire piece is sung into a telephone receiver) only makes the work more relevant today, in a world in which the phone is ubiquitous yet seems only to have increased the difficulty of communicating effectively - simply put, in 2017 there are more opportunities to get things wrong.
Soprano, Sarah Minns, - like Elle herself - is alone and vulnerable, ivory silk pyjamas and fur coat speaking to wealth (or a sugar daddy), surrounding by a mesh of metal that suggests both the tiling one might find in a Parisian apartment bedroom, but also the cage for a pet kept for amusement and decoration. Minns' voice soars and dips with Elle's moods, her anxiety bubbling over when she loses the party line (if you're under 50, ask your parents) eventually wrapping the cord of the phone round her neck, the instrument of salvation transformed into her executioner - or is the pantomime of literally hanging on the telephone just another empty threat? It's an intense and draining experience simply to watch - Minns must be exhausted after the 50 minutes run time.
Poulenc's music has been adapted by Robin Black for his (beautiful) grand piano, the silences and gaps in the notes as eloquent as the dissonance and urgent melodies that come and go mirroring the chaos of Elle's mind. Sometimes Black's piano works with Minns' voice; sometimes he works against her - but the music never stops urging her forward, without judgement, her decisions her own.
There's an irony of sorts in the telephone's role in Elle's collapse, as charities like The Samaritans and Nightline have done so much to help people whose depression has pushed them towards the pills and the noose. We would hope, these days, that Elle, a confident and gregarious woman, might access the support she needs to overcome her crisis (possibly over the phone) - but the impact of failing love affairs on those whose mental health is fragile remains as big an issue today as it was in 1959.
This production makes its demands, but it rewards the effort with a personal and moving study of a soul in torment and music that is hardly singalong, but complements perfectly the ordeal depicted on stage. An artistic triumph - if not the easiest of evenings.
Photo - Christopher Tribble