Music: Francis Poulenc (La Voix Humaine), Henry Purcell (Dido and Aeneas)
Libretto: Jean Cocteau (La Voix Humaine), Nahum Tate (Dido and Aeneas)
Director &Choreographer: Aletta Collins
Conductor: Wyn Davies
Reviewer: Jo Beggs
Despite being written 270 years apart, it’s clear why Opera North thought to create this challenging double bill of Poulenc’s La Voix Humaine and Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas. Elle and Dido – two women stricken by longing and lost love. Trapped in their rooms. Trapped in their own heads. Spiralling into hysteria.
A handful of the audience have probably turned out for the ambitious programme, but it’s likely that the majority have come to see the return to the operatic stage of Lesley Garrett. They don’t have long to wait. The curtain rises to reveal Garrett framed by dressing room make up lights, gazing into a fourth wall ‘mirror’. Elle is an actress, ensconced in her dressing room alone, waiting from a call from her estranged lover. La Voix Humaine is a one act ‘tragedie lyrique’, an operatic monologue based on Jean Cocteau’s 1930 play of the same name. It’s a strange little piece, as I’m sure it was in its original dramatic format, but Poulenc’s version draws on the dislocation of the operatic form to create a particularly unsettling tone.
Garrett brings a perfect disquiet in her physical and vocal performance as she reveals her history with the man on the other end of the phone in a one-sided, increasingly desperate conversation. As she twists the phone cord and rattles a bottle of sleeping tablets, you know its not going to end well. It’s an interesting, tricky piece for Garrett to choose, after a number of years focused on TV and radio presenting and studio albums, but she’s a confident and skilled performer and she brings a great balance to the piece, convincing us that this is a woman in the depths of depression – a deeply felt sadness balanced with a restless mania.
The second half of the evening is given over to a more historic hysteric. Dido, Queen of Carthage (Pamela Helen Stephen) pines for Prince Aeneas (Phillip Rhodes). As luck would have it he’s just returned from the Trojan Wars but a reunion between the two followed by his subsequent, fateful departure to fulfil his destiny as the founder of Troy, only makes her loneliness worse. Visited by witches and Furies, her sanity begins to ebb away.
Director Aletta Collins plays with the notion of the madness, creating Furies who are carbon copies of Dido herself, splinters of her personality. They’re a malevolent band of spiteful spectres. This device of multiple red-headed doppelgangers, although perhaps a little overused (a couple of times they feel a bit too much like a chorus line), is a powerful way to deal with the supernatural, and creates a rather beautiful visual experience, especially give the use of three dancers (Soledad de la Haz, Katie Lusby, Lucy Ridley) whose physical storytelling adds a whole other layer to the piece.
If a ‘a room of one’s own’ is supposed to offer a woman her literal space, then these two don’t do their inhabitants any favours. Set designer Giles Cadle moves from a dingy, Hopper-like space to an Op Art shard with troubling perspective, cell-like spaces where the only natural light comes from doors which mostly remain tight shut. In La Voix Humaine there’s even the threat of a savage dog on the other side of the door whose worst side has come out since the absent lover left. Both of Cadle’s highly successful sets are brought to life with Andreas Fuchs’ deft and emotive lighting design.
La Voix Humaine and Dido and Aeneas are both powerful operatic works, perhaps overlooked not only due to their length but also to their strangeness. Opera North, never a company to shy away from the difficult and innovative, have created two distinct productions which sit together beautifully and make for a fulfilling, if sombre, night of entertainment.