The Human Voice: Poulenc via Cocteau
This year, the Castleton Festival offers Francis Poulenc's one-act opera La Voix Humaine (The Human Voice) in combination with the Jean Cocteau play with the same name that inspired the opera. On July 20, 2013, the Dresser saw Dietlinde Turban Maazel play Elle (She) in the Cocteau play presented in English translation and American lyric soprano Jennifer Black sing the role of Elle in the Poulenc opera presented in the original French. The play and the opera are a one-person monologue where a woman is talking on a party-line phone mostly to her lover.
The two-part program running 90 minutes with one intermission is a study in character interpretation. Cocteau's play, which premiered in 1930 at the Comédie-Française, was in good hands with Turban Maazel playing a soft-spoken, self-deprecating mistress of a man who not only abandons her after a five-year relationship to marry another woman but he has the nerve to call her late at night as if he had the right to do so. In Poulenc's opera, which was composed in 1959, the music carries the character and her moods. Poulenc's and Black's Elle is larger than life with a strong voice who lets the audience know her despair, desperation, and anger.
Jennifer Black does an outstanding job of making us feel for Elle but in a very different way from Turban Maazel. For example, at the opening of the opera, Black throws down the bouquet of roses presumably sent by Monsieur to ease the news that he is marrying someone else. The play opens with the flowers already on the floor with rose petals artfully arranged as if a wedding flower girl had carefully strewn the petals across Elle's living room.
While the play opened with a bit of mood music, the music of the opera conducted satisfyingly by Antonio Mendez provided the framework for Elle. Notably, at key points of Elle's discussion of the emotional high points, like the trip they took to Versailles with Monsieur, Poulenc's music crescendos in a way reminiscent of film scoring. (Poulenc actually wrote music for file, such as La Duchesse de Langeais, a film based on Balzac novel.) Poulenc's score is an amorphous and accessible atonality with accents like the jazz invoked when it becomes clear that Monsieur is not at home in the phone conversation with Elle but at a late night party probably with his bride-to-be.
The Castleton Festival has one more performance July 27 of this dual bill. Since most operagoers do not live in or near Rappahannock County, Virginia, the question is, would it be worth the drive to get there to see this production? The Dresser says while the sets and costumes are pleasing, if you have never experienced the operas of Poulenc, this might be a place to start but in truth the value comes in experiencing the original play with the opera variation. One should also know that the play is not typical of Jean Cocteau's writing that was characteristically surreal. Most likely operagoers planning to spend the weekend near the Castleton Festival so they can attend performances of Verdi's Otello and other program offerings are the most likely audience.
Emily Fragos' poem "Cri de Coeur" aptly and concisely sums up the isolated setting and emotional circumstance of Elle in La Voix Humaine (The Human Voice) for both interpretations of this character in Poulenc's opera and Cocteau's play. The main difference is Fragos delivers the message more quickly.
CRI DE COEUR
What if you said yes
to everything. What would happen
to me then. I am telling
you the rage would start and never
come to end. How dare you
care for me when all my life
I have had this voltage to ignite
me, this rhythm to drive me,
when something inside your body
dares me to touch my hands
to yours. And if you said go
ahead, touch. What would happen
to my life then, when all along
there has been nothing but me.
by Emily Fragos
from Hostage: New & Selected Poems
Copyright © 2011 Emily Fragos
Photo of Jennifer Black by Ken Howard