La Voix Humaine

François Poulenc, Libretto by Jean Cocteau
Opera Philadelphia
Elkins Estate in Cheltenham Township, Pennsylvania

Patricia Racette Credit: Dominic M Mercier

François Poulenc’s intimate opera is an adaptation of Jean Cocteau’s 35-minute monodrama which had premièred at the Comédie Française in 1930 with Berthe Bovy in the lead role.

Poulenc composed his “musical confession” specifically for Denise Duval and she had a big success in 1959. The music, reflecting speech patterns, pauses and hesitations, perfectly complements Cocteau’s fraught text.

A middle-aged woman is talking on the phone to her lover who has just ditched her. They have been in a relationship for five years and she is on the verge of a breakdown and suicidal.

The play and the opera have attracted such famous names as Anna Magnani, Simone Signoret, Ingrid Bergman, Sophia Loren, Jessye Norman and, most recently, Tilda Swinton.

Opera Philadelphia has decided to do something different in these COVID-19 times. They have reimagined and filmed the opera to make it more cinematic; but the filming does not in this instance lead to more psychological insight and nuance.

Patricia Racette is on the screen acting a role she has sung in many opera houses. Her voice is off-screen. Singing and acting remain separated. Sometimes, she is on the phone. More often than not, she is not on the phone. The telephone no longer plays a major role. The constant cutting off and having to redial, so dramatically effective in the theatre, has gone.

James Darrah’s production is very distracting. He places Racette in different parts of her elegant apartment: sometimes she is sitting on a chair, sometimes she is lying on the floor, sometimes she is at the grand piano, sometimes she is at the wash basin, sometimes she is up to her ankles in a debris of love-letters, sometimes she is running down a corridor, sometimes she is getting into a bath fully clothed.

She never makes direct contact with her lover and there is no attempt to win him back with flattery and blackmail. Her anguish is going on inside her head. The production is too contrived and artificial. I was never moved.

La Voix Humaine is streaming on the Opera Philadelphia Channel beginning on Friday, September 24 for rent for $20 as well as unlimited viewing with an annual Channel Pass.

Reviewer: Robert Tanitch

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