Performances of Poulenc’s extraordinary monologue opera (with words by Cocteau) to come in ‘found spaces’ and site-specific locations in 2015 and 2016.
Sarah Gabriel, soprano
Christopher Glynn, piano
Edward Dick, director
When I first performed Edward Dick’s new production of La Voix Humaine at The Cheltenham and Deal Festivals, they asked me to write about why I love this piece. Here’s what I said:
‘Come on now, be honest! Which one of you wouldn’t rather listen to his hairdresser than Hercules? Or Horatius, or Orpheus… people so lofty they sound as if they shit marble!’
When I was little, I was thrilled by this speech in Amadeus (partly, I’m sure, because of a word that was strictly embargoed). I don’t agree entirely with Mozart’s rant: I love performing Handel, Hasse, Gluck, and of course, Mozart, and I relish opera plots filled with deities and royalty. But that momentary frisson from the film came back to me when I first encountered Poulenc’s monologue, La Voix Humaine.
It’s a great opera about an unremarkable person. It’s colloquial, and it takes place in real time. There are mundane moments that establish a universal theme – not just about lost love but about something much less romantic: the urge that we have to manipulate others, and even humiliate ourselves, when we are not in command of a situation, or are fearful of not getting what we believe we need.
Elle is desperately, recklessly in love. He hasn’t treated her kindly (‘For five years,’ she says, ‘I’ve lived through you…passed time just waiting for you…‘) and, the day after breaking up with her, he phones her, not to change his mind (which she wills so forcefully) but to retrieve their love letters (which she refuses to realise). For forty-five agonising minutes, we hear Elle on the telephone using every imaginable means to convince him to come back to her.
I’d suggest that most of us have been in a position in which we are desperate to wrest control, and simply can’t. With Elle, it happens to be to do with love – obsessive, undignified, all-absorbing. She is prepared to lose everything – to give it all away – to get anything back. With Cocteau’s words and Poulenc’s notes, she colours every shade of persuasion and manipulation – from invoking precious moments of nostalgia with filigree charm, to a mortifying self-debasement that is difficult to witness.
It’s already a tired trope, but I believe it’s true that the more ‘connected’ we are technologically, the more disconnected we’re in danger of becoming. When I’m in an audience, I don’t just want to watch what’s in front of me; I want the symbiotic relationship between the piece, the performers and the audience to permit a catharsis that only occurs in a live performance. If the performance tells a story which resonates, I come away from that experience enriched, troubled, sorry that these things happen to people – or that they do it to themselves. I hope that these experiences make me understand the human condition a little more. The ugly, but entirely human aspect of catharsis is the relief that the story didn’t happen to us.
To me, this piece is inseparable from Paris. When I first visited as a teenager I was fascinated by the city – with its facades of haughty, grubby, secretive windows, behind which I presumed that peculiarly French dramas took place. Since I’ve known La Voix Humaine, I’ve looked up at buildings while walking through the city and thought, ‘That could be her room,’ (in the suburb of Passy, Poulenc said) or, ‘He’d live there,’ (somewhere smarter). The thing is, I could be right about any of those places, because – give or take a couple of foolish, fallible choices and the tragic ending – this story could be almost anyone’s.