Opera: La Voix Humaine (The Human Voice)
Company: Opera Theatre of Saint Louis
Venue: Outdoors at Loretto-Hilton Center on Webster University campus
Dates: June 14 and 20
Story: Elle hasn’t forgotten her lover of five years, even though he’s moved on to another woman. She blames herself for their breakup and tells him this much in a series of phone calls one night. Judging from her comments, he’s at least listening to her, but we don’t hear a single word he says and can only observe her reactions when she’s not speaking.
Elle variously laments, pleas, informs and compliments her ex-lover even as the phone connection between them – like their relationship – is balky and unreliable. Frustrated with wrong numbers who interrupt occasionally in between her calls back and forth with the man she loves, she reaches out when the two of them do connect with attempts at conversation.
She says, e.g., that she went out on the town the previous night with her friend Marthe and that they enjoyed themselves. When she returned home, she tells her ex-lover she took a sleeping pill to help her nod off after such a pleasant evening.
Shortly thereafter, however, she reveals to her ex-paramour that what she said isn’t really true. She then explains what actually happened, but her efforts at clarity are frustrated by the continually erratic phone connection between them. When she hears different music in the background, she surmises at first that he’s at a favorite restaurant. She gradually admits, though, what she knows: He’s at the apartment of his new lover.
The telephone is supposed to be a key instrument in the communication between two people close to each other in this mid-20th century setting. For Elle, however, the line too often is filled with static, emptiness, wrong numbers and other frustrations, which seal the deal for her doomed relationship with a man who once loved her as much as she still loves him.
Highlights: Accomplished soprano Patricia Racette utilizes both her singing and acting abilities in this challenging, one-woman work by composer Francis Poulenc being given an intimate presentation in its premiere production at Opera Theatre of Saint Louis.
Other Info: Poulenc based his one-act, 40-minute opera on a one-woman play with the same title written by French playwright Jean Cocteau nearly 30 years earlier in 1928. Poulenc’s harsh, often discordant-sounding work was designed by him to be performed by a reduced symphony orchestra, with specific instruments listed in Poulenc’s score.
During his lifetime, Poulenc nixed public performances of La Voix Humaine with piano accompaniment. OTSL’s presentation features Racette accompanied by collaborative pianist Sun Ha (Sunny) Yoon, whose efforts greatly enhance OTSL’s rendition.
OTSL’s performance features an English translation by Richard Redman Stokes for a 2006 Opera North production, with new adaptations by Racette and Beth Clayton.
While Racette’s performance ably demonstrates her considerable vocal skills, her direction also underscores the work’s weakness: It’s quite static and really is a ‘one-note show’ in the sense that its theme of loneliness and desperation is repeated over and over again even in its abbreviated length. Elle (French for she) can act and react to the phone and to the comments of her unheard ex-lover, but after a while it’s all more of the same with dulled impact.
Allen Moyer’s handsome, imposing set design of Elle’s bedroom is appropriately dominated by a pronounced gray tone, while Christopher Akerlind’s lighting design suitably conveys the dimmed light poring through Elle’s bedroom window at night. James Schuette’s costume design accentuates Elle’s professional standing as an actress, with Moyer’s set showcasing an elegant assortment of lamps, coffee tables, an ornate bed, fireplace and a dresser with a mirror to reflect Elle’s lingering sadness. Steven Colby’s sound design underscores the opera’s themes of depression and desperation.
Poulenc’s music picks up its tempo and briefly enlivens proceedings when Elle hears music in the background where her ex-lover returns her call, but it’s gone all too soon. OTSL has mounted a well-done production and Racette’s accomplished soprano is as powerful and swaying as always, but La Voix Humaine ultimately sounds more like an operatic exercise than a full-bodied story, especially on an outdoor stage.
Tickets: $39 (sold out). There are 30 free tickets available for every performance on a first-come, first-served basis. May be reserved online or via phone beginning two days before every show. Go to experienceopera.org or call 314-961-0644.