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La Voix Humaine/Reflections on La Voix Humaine – Leeds Playhouse

Reviewer: Ron Simpson

Composer: Francis Poulenc

Directors: Sameena Hussain/Matthew Eberhardt

Connected Voices is a series of six short pieces (each about 40 minutes) from Leeds Playhouse and Opera North to mark the re-opening of the Playhouse. Matthew Eberhardt and Aletta Collins have curated a sequence of loosely interconnected works on the highly topical theme of isolation and connection.  The first four were presented on the first weekend, using four different spaces at the Playhouse and celebrating the range and variety of the recently transformed building, and three of these will be repeated for the next two weeks.

Francis Poulenc’s one-act opera for solo soprano, La Voix Humaine, based on Jean Cocteau’s play, has become almost a staple for Opera North, most recently sung by Lesley Garrett. With only one character (anonymously called ‘Elle’), it yet contains conflict (implied at a distance and within Elle herself) and dynamic shifts of mood. The woman has been deserted by her lover and is on the brink of suicide; his telephone call is all that she lives for; almost comically crossed lines and his neglect – surely he is with his new girlfriend? – drive her to an agonised and defeated expression of love at the end.

Sameena Hussain’s direction keeps it simple, appropriately in the small-scale setting of the Barber Studio. The only directorial trope is the presence of three telephones (of decreasing size and increasing modernity), one on each of the tables on set – after spending the first half of the opera seated in one of two chairs, Elle turns desperately from one telephone to another. Most of the hints at dramatic (even melodramatic) action are underplayed.

What we get instead is an intense immediacy of communication. Gillene Butterfield demonstrates (not for the first time) the number of outstanding individual performers in the Opera North Chorus. Raw emotion she can do, but she also modulates sensitively and subtly into bourgeois irritation with the crossed-line caller, lyrical recollection of lost times and hopeless optimism – that joyful chirp of hello every time contact is made.

Though La Voix Humaine is scored for full orchestra, the use of piano accompaniment is by no means unusual, and Annette Saunders provides all the uneasy tension, spiky lyricism and ominous drama you could wish for.

Staged for three performances on the first weekend of Connected Voices, Reflections on La Voix Humaine provided a sort of commentary on the opera. Unfortunately, the central story came a poor second to the Poulenc/Cocteau masterpiece. Despite Amy J. Payne working hard to mine the intensity of the situation, the drama of a woman with an unfaithful lover who refuses to speak when he does show up never grabbed the attention.

Where Matthew Eberhardt’s concept scored was in the uniting of different art forms. The season is about connection and one element in that is connection between words and music and between different traditions, eras and styles.

In Reflections… the audience sat on the stage of the Courtyard Theatre as the lights picked out different performing areas in the auditorium. There was the room where the main action took place, but up in the second tier a splendid quartet of singers performed in baroque style and down below the brilliant sitarist Jasdeep Singh Degun and singer Keertan Kaur gave a different perspective. It’s difficult to explain why, but the ending, with Kaur’s affectingly melancholy vocal and Singh Degun’s wonderfully evocative playing, while the unhappy couple watched socially (or emotionally) distanced in the first tier, was far more moving than the words had been.

La Voix Humaine runs until October 17th 2020

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The Yorkshire & North East team is under the editorship of Mark Clegg. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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