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Reviews

Opera Holland Park, <em>La voix humaine</em>
26 Mar 2017

La voix humaine: Opera Holland Park at the Royal Albert Hall

Reflections on former visits to Opera Holland Park usually bring to mind late evening sunshine, peacocks, Japanese gardens, the occasional chilly gust in the pavilion and an overriding summer optimism, not to mention committed performances and strong musical and dramatic values.

Opera Holland Park, La voix humaine

A review by Claire Seymour

Above: Anne Sophie Duprels

Photo credit: Alex Brenner

 

For this performance of Poulenc’s one-woman emotional roller-coaster, La voix humaine (1959), Opera Holland Park ventured indoors, into the genteel setting of the Elgar Room at the Royal Albert Hall. The room is not a large one and some of the sell-out crowd may have found their sightlines somewhat restricted as Marie Lambert’s intense, taut direction placed French soprano Anne Sophie Duprels at the centre of a slightly raised platform, often kneeling, crouching or reclining.

But, the intimacy of the setting, together with Duprels’ astonishing presence and impact, more than made up for any visual impediment. Duprels’ tour de force also helped mitigate the drabness of the design. Given the nature of this one-off excursion to the RAH, allowance can be made for adopting a limited staging, especially for a work that in fact needs no staging at all (except perhaps a single property, the telephone itself, which is almost a second character) to make its emotional and dramatic impact).

But, Lambert’s fluctuating lighting was distracting. And, the dilapidated plywood bedstead, daubed with blue paint splashes, did little to evoke Parisian chic. Nor did it suggest the bedroom ‘asleep with remembering’ which contains just a woman and the telephone that she clutches, ‘like a revolver’, as Cocteau demanded when instructing Poulenc about the design and staging of the opera in 1959. However, the blue cord of the telephone was a subtle but powerful visual image: Duprels’ ultramarine fingernails suggested it was delivering an intravenous infusion of a blue barbiturate, sedating and hypnotising the anxiety-fuelled woman, as she slipped ever nearer to sleep, or suicide.

Fortunately, Duprels’ performance pushed any concerns aside. As ‘Elle’, the lonely woman who makes a desperate telephone call to the lover who has abandoned her, she spanned an enormous emotional spectrum from terror to tremulous hope, from existential despair to excitement. We hear just one side of the conversation but, through careful pacing of the silences and nuanced repetitions of others’ words, Duprels was able to evoke a world beyond the forlorn bedroom, thereby deepening her own alienation from normal human interaction and exchange. As her attempted tête-à-tête was continually disrupted by wrong-numbers, disconnections, crossed-wires and an intrusive operator, Elle’s inner distress became a palpable but unspoken inner cry for help, ‘Can you hear me?’

Anne Sophie Duprels (c) Alex Brenner.jpg Anne Sophie Duprels. Photo credit: Alex Brenner.

Cocteau’s 1930 play grew out extreme personal crisis: addicted to opium, he was in the midst of a turbulent affair with a young writer, Jean Desbordes, who eventually abandoned Cocteau for a woman and joined the French Resistance movement, suffering a torturous death at the hands of the Gestapo. Poulenc, in the 1950s, was also suffering private distress, depression and drug addiction following the death of his partner Lucien Roubert. Though the work, in both dramatic and operatic form, conveys the universal experience of grief for a lost love, there is a crypto-homosexual insinuation in Elle’s quasi-masochistic sensibility which recalls the plays of Tennessee Williams.

Cocteau does not seem particularly sympathetic towards his protagonist. Her lies are barefaced - she is wearing his favourite dress (in Lambert’s production she is draped in an unflattering, dirty, crumpled beige night-shirt); she has spent the day with her best friend, Marthe, when in fact she hasn’t left the room; she’s coping well, even though she later confesses she has tried to take her own life just the evening before.

But, as Elle recollected old love letters and rambled incoherently - almost a caricature of emotional neediness - Duprels managed to draw sympathy for the suffering women, despite her histrionics and melodrama. The moment when Elle discovers that her lover’s mendacity equals her own was full of pathos. We infer that he is calling her from his apartment, and when the line suddenly goes dead, she re-dials, only to be answered by the servant Joseph. Duprels’ reiteration of Joseph’s words, ‘Monsieur is not in and will not be returning home tonight’, was laden with tragic realisation and recognition.

Duprels confirmed that she is a tremendous singing actress. Not surprisingly, every word of the French text was audible and she had a sure sense of how to accommodate her voice to the small venue. She conjured an enormous variety of vocal colour and tone: at times whispering, speaking, crooning, then flowering in full blown lyrical ecstasy, gleaming at the top, breathless and dusky below. As she tried vainly to win her lover back with nostalgic remembrance, her voice was caressing, but when pain and pride broke through Duprels exposed Elle’s bitterness, introducing a shrill stridency or hardness of tone. Her physical commitment to the role was consummate, the final moments of Elle’s breakdown gripping and troubling.

Pascal Rogé was an attentive, detailed and discreet accompanist, powerfully interjecting with angular, jabbing motifs to portray the climactic peaks of Elle’s nervous disintegration, but elsewhere delicately hinting at wistful memories of tenderness or expanding lyrically to convey past passions.

Duprels demonstrated just how powerful a musico-dramatic experience she could create with limited means and time. I greatly admired Duprels’ performance last year in Mascagni’s in Iris and her performance here certainly whets the appetite for this year’s season at Holland Park, where in July she will be reunited with Lambert in a new production of Leoncavallo’s Zazà whose eponymous ‘heroine’ - a chanteuse raised from the backstreets to the bright lights - runs her own gamut from fervent passion to dejected self-pity.

Opera Holland Park 2017

Claire Seymour

Poulenc: La voix humaine

Anne Sophie Duprels (soprano), Pascal Rogé (piano)

Opera Holland Park, Elgar Room, Royal Albert Hall, London; Wednesday 22nd March 2017.

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