Jean Cocteau and Francis Poulenc are two bastions of 20th century French creativity, pushing the envelope away from a traditional Romantic period into one of expressionism, serialism and altogether darker motifs. La Voix Humaine is no different – a one-woman lament on the phone to her ex-lover about how she cannot carry on without his commitment and devotion.
Poulenc and Cocteau instantly reveal the human condition as one of desperation, fear and insecurity. Soprano Sarah Minns and pianist Richard Black do not provide such a complex, layered portrayal.
Kate Lane’s set is a sparse, white cage that Minns skulks in and around, phone clutched to her ear as her only connection to the world of life. In a silk, white nightdress and fur coat, Minns is simultaneously sultry and somewhat insane in appearance – the line between luxury and asylum is acutely judged by Lane. This is far from the perfect world that wealth imbues.
The issue with La Voix Humaine is that it is frankly too flat. Minns’ voice lacks control in the top notes without appropriate preparation – in a longer, lyrical, ascending passage she has no issue projecting through the piercing, somewhat achromatic chords that form Poulenc’s discordant undertones. But when approached cold, Minns lacks the push to sit comfortably over the top of the note. Her lower register is rich and purple however, maturing over the course of the fifty-minute long performance like a fine wine.
Regardless of her vocal capability, the combination of Minns and Black lacks the ebb and flow of a desperate woman that discovers the love of her life has moved on to another conquest. She should be longing for his return, lusty in using her feminine wiles to seduce him back and decisive in her suicidal ultimatum. There should be light and shade, dynamic colouring to the vocal lines that jumps between extremes from one bar to the next. Poulenc is renowned for pushing his work to the limits is every sense and this performance feels as bland as the white set on which it is based.
Minns’ strength is in her micro-neurotic reactions, those that towards the end of the opera are magnified as she realizes she can’t win back her man. Her erratic interruptions to the melody are unexpected but welcomed – a change of pace that finally adds layering to the character. But in many ways, this is more infuriating to the audience; minutes before the end we get the level of complexity that we expect from a Poulenc-Cocteau collaboration. La Voix Humaine should be a short, sharp shock of a performance – this is more of a tepid creation, mimsy and without true strength of character.
Director: Robin Norton-Hale; Richard Black (musical director)
Producer: Amy Novadnieks for OperaUpClose
Writer: Jean Cocteau
Adaptor: Joseph Machlis
Composer: Francis Poulenc
Design: Kate Lane (set & costume); Richard Williamson (lighting)
Cast: Sarah Minns
La Voix Humaine plays on selected dates until 20 August 2017. For more information or to book tickets, please visit the website.