It’s certainly not predictable: Seattle Opera’s current double bill of one-act operas, which just opened last weekend, represents the company’s most adventurous undertaking of the season as far as programming goes.
First, there is the pairing itself: French composer Francis Poulenc’s monodrama “La Voix Humaine” (“The Human Voice”), with its relentless close-up on a single character, launches the evening with an artful mix of neurotic emoting and oblique implication. What follows is “Suor Angelica,” an unabashed tear-jerker from late in Puccini’s career. It features a radiant score complete with an over-the-top apotheosis as the finale.
There are no male voices in either opera. Both feature female leads who need more than a beautiful voice: Puccini and especially Poulenc require their heroines to compress an intense, full-length evening’s worth of acting into less than an hour each.
Poulenc’s indirection leaves you searching between the lines and realizing that what seemed “obvious” was actually a smokescreen for something much more ambiguous. The result is closer to what audiences might associate with spoken theater. Puccini meanwhile provides the full-on wallop you expect from opera – above all, Italian opera.
Poulenc's “La Voix Humaine” did start out as a straight play, an experimental one-woman show introduced in 1930 by the writer and filmmaker Jean Cocteau. Given the Cocteau connection, and his own lively theatrical sensibility, Poulenc came to opera relatively late. He produced only one “conventional” large-scale opera: the intensely beautiful “Dialogues of the Carmelites,” set just before and during the French Revolution. (Local Poulenc-heads were overjoyed at the rare chance to see his first opera, the wildly Surrealist, gender-bender musical theater piece “Les Mamelles de Tirésias,” when it was produced earlier this spring by the enterprising Vespertine Opera Theater.)
“La Voix Humaine” – making its Seattle Opera debut – followed a couple years later (1959) and was created in close collaboration with the soprano Denise Duval, who served as the openly gay Poulenc’s muse.
The stripped-down concept of this opera centers on one woman: Elle. She’s the only character we see, though others are alluded to. Elle is conducting her final conversation on the phone with the boyfriend (“Chéri”) who has recently called it quits. The dramatic set-up imposes a fascinating limitation: think Ravel’s one-handed Piano Concerto, or films like “Phone Booth.” The premise sounds gimmicky, but Cocteau and Poulenc turn it into something more than a mere dramaturgical challenge. And the challenge is formidable. Soprano Nuccia Focile must hold the stage by herself throughout the entire arc of the piece, while also conveying a sense of what she is hearing from Chéri on the other end of the line – information the audience is left to infer.
Poulenc takes an innovative approach to the age-old quandary of how to balance the elements of music and drama. Basically he wants to have it both ways, mingling the direct expressive power of the singing voice with more “prosaic” vocalization and nuanced theatricality – all of which demands a good deal of physical acting.
Focile impresses with her ability to turn on a dime with her voice, singing the little doses of worry, then relief, then lyricism followed by panic, that make up the vocal line. With this strategy, Poulenc accomplishes something equivalent to Wagner’s continually frustrated resolutions and delayed cadences in “Tristan”: He frustrates our expectations that a patch of melody (usually prompted by a tender memory from Elle) will blossom or soar and take flight.
The music constantly pauses and restarts in a different vein, the alternating silences like intakes of breath – or a new piece of information from the unheard Chéri, which then sets Elle off on another course.
Focile’s vocal acting as Elle convinces in ways in which her gestural language fails. I wish the connection between the two had been more organic. As she roams about the large bedroom where her phone call takes place, her understated, intimate physical responses are sometimes touching, sometimes puzzling, particularly when Elle is at her most vulnerable.
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