When Jean Cocteau (the famous writer, film maker, artist and designer) wrote his play, La Voix Humaine, back in 1930, the telephone was still a relatively new technology, at least as a device most people had in their homes. By 1959, the year that Francis Poulenc (the French composer and pianist) adapted the play into an opera, there was rarely a household without one.
In 2016, an era when all of us are connected by invisible wires at all times, the role of the phone in relation to our communication with one another runs far deeper than Cocteau or Poulenc likely ever imagined. The main difference between their era’s relationship with the phone and our own involves the necessity of the human voice. It is this most fragile and specific of human functions that that La Voix Humaine is most concerned with.
Originally written as an opera for a solo soprano with a full orchestra, Long Beach Opera’s recent revival stripped the material down to its bones, leaving just the vocalist and a piano. Set inside the basement of downtown Long Beach’s Federal Bar (a nightclub space in what used to be an old bank vault) their production created a rare, intimate setting for a work that is already rather emotionally intimate to begin with.
Deceptively simple in its construction, La Voix Humaine is centered on Elle and the last conversation she has with her recently departed lover. If you haven’t guessed by the previous paragraphs, the conversation in question takes place over a telephone, a device that plays nearly as large a role as Elle’s lover on its other line. As lies are slowly exposed from both parties, Elle plunges deeper into a well of obsession and lost chances while the telephone serves as a middleman between herself, her lover and the void.
Luckily, instead of turning the material into overwhelming melodrama, the intimate space is the perfect setting for the material, due in no small way to a tour-de-force performance by LBO regular Suzan Hanson.
Hanson has appeared in numerous productions with Long Beach Opera and in every one in which I have seen her (Difficulty of Crossing a Field, Candide and most recently Fallujah) she has been a towering highlight of the production. Here, although Kristof Van Grysperre’s piano playing and Andreas Mitisek’s direction unquestionably contributed to the opera’s success, it was Hanson’s performance that elevated the material to the next level.
Rarely have I encountered performers whose voices are as compelling and accomplished as their acting, and while the same can be said for actors who sing, in the world of opera, one tends to run into the former far more than the latter. Hanson is one of those rare performers who physically and vocally inhabit material so fully it becomes difficult to observe either her voice or her acting in isolation. Her commitment and the flawless integration of both of these elements into one another offers the rare treat of experiencing good opera that also feels like good theater.
Hanson’s performance here is less manic than I have seen from others who have performed this material, but also more grounded and convincingly heartbreaking. In particular, her ability to shift between plainly spoken or sung lines to those more grandiose and lyrical created a believability and immediacy that the actress, the musical director and the stage director should all be proud of.
The opera itself is slightly less neurotic than its source material and in many ways, I find the operatic adaptation more enjoyable as a whole. Poulenc’s music finds a way of adding emotion and tone to Elle’s phone conversation while trimming back the more existential passages of the original play. This results in a more ambiguous and sometimes, more transportive rendering of her story.
With all of this gushing going on, there were a few false notes struck with LBO’s production, though most of them proved to be more aesthetic than anything else. A clearly marked Trader Joe’s bottle of scotch seemed a rather lazy prop choice for a period piece as did the totally unnecessary current-day sunglasses Kristof Van Grysperre wore at the piano (You’re not Bono man, and that’s something you should be proud of). These may sound like small bones to pick but in an intimate setting these sorts of careless choices draw lots of unnecessary attention to themselves.
More frustrating than either of this was Andreas Mitisek’s decision to show his audience Elle’s suicide at the opera’s conclusion. In the source material and in all the previous stagings of the opera that I’m aware of, it is ambiguous as to what happens to Elle at the end of her story. The ambiguity of the ending seems to reflect the ambiguity of the state in which we leave Elle, lost in a limbo of pornographically horrible visions. To put such a definite cap on the ending undermines the author’s point. To make matters worse, the aforementioned suicide is preformed using sleeping pills which somehow are so strong that they knock Elle to the ground almost instantly, something not just unlikely but unnecessary as well. If Mitisek wanted to show the audience Elle’s suicide, he could have built up a device of suspended disbelief, making us think that she hadn’t yet swallowed her pills, only to reveal later that in fact, she had. As it stood, it’s not just that the idea was bad, but that its execution was also sloppy. I have come to expect more nuanced theatricality from LBO and this decision seemed strangely out of character.
A tacked on opening of songs and music written by Poulenc and Erik Satie (a contemporary of his) proved an enjoyable but unnecessary diversion as La Voix Humaine, though brief in length, is a complete and comprehensive work on its own and needs no decorations in order to make it appear legitimate.
It is easy nowadays to mistake interactions with technology as intimate experiences, and causes for miscommunication only continue to increase. It is a rare treat to still be able to sit in a small room full of people, where the only phone ringing is the one on stage and the only thing you hear is the music of the human voice. In spite of technology’s continual momentum in our society, there are some things that cannot be reproduced or replicated. La Voix Humaine is one such thing.
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