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Poulenc and Puccini: Perfect together

Nuccia Focile in La Voix Humaine. Credit: Photo: Elise Bakketun

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. 

Still, Focile brings out a more nuanced sense that her story’s essence is lurking beneath the surface – and just as mysterious as whatever Chéri is saying or may have said. However dated the plot stratagem of broken connections in 1950s Paris seems, Elle's acceptance of solitude in the final stage image is a haunting reminder of the unchanging human condition. 

Much of the audience’s restlessness with the first opera on opening night could be blamed on frustration over the denial of a Big Tune. “La Voix Humaine” isn’t an aria writ large, but a fractured soliloquy (Elle might as well be speaking to herself) and a psychogram.

The more usual operatic satisfactions come in the second half of the program.

“Suor Angelica” is taken from the middle panel of Puccini’s triptych of one-act operas (literally called that; i.e., “Il Trittico”), which premiered at the Met in 1918, soon after World War I. Typically the three operas are produced separately, though, as in this double bill. 

To atone for having a child out of wedlock, the heroine, Suor Angelica, has been forced by her powerful aristocratic family to enter the convent in which the story is set. The time is 17th-century Italy. (Interestingly, Poulenc’s “Dialogues of the Carmelites” also involves an historical setting and a young woman who has sought refuge in the convent.) When her aunt, the Principessa, arrives after a silence of years to have Angelica sign away her claim to the family money, she also brings news that Angelica's child has died.

We won't give away the ending here. Suffice it to say that Puccini manages to be more blatantly manipulative and outrageously sentimental than in “Madama Butterfly” (or take your pick), while at the same time creating one of the most genuinely heartbreaking moments in opera. So much so that you have to be more or less emotionless if the finale doesn’t bring you to tears. 

Making her company debut as Suor Angelica, Russian soprano Maria Gavrilova transcends this paradox through a marvelous performance that draws out every facet of her character. Her voice is a powerful instrument capable of swelling torrents of emotion and impressive across its range, especially at the top. But Gavrilova uses it as well to bring out Angelica's palpable sense of anxiety, her submissiveness before the Principessa, and the unbearably poignant, tender reactions of her aria mourning the death of her child. 

Stage director and Seattle regular Bernard Uzan has done some of the best work I’ve seen from him here. He effectively winnows the dramatic focus from the first scene, an ensemble gathering of the nuns, to the pivotal interview with the Principessa, and finally to Angelica’s final action, a female Passion story and resurrection that benefits from Uzan’s honest, straightforward treatment. A critic in Puccini’s day derided this finale as “mock turtle mysticism,” but Uzan captures both its surprise and its stirring emotional impact. (Director Bernard Uzan discusses directing Poulenc and Puccini.)

In the Poulenc, Uzan had to fill the stage with the different moods of Elle as she unravels. “Suor Angelica,” by contrast, opens with the nuns singing offstage – the only weakness in the female chorus’s otherwise gorgeous work is a miscalculation in acoustics here – and follows a more conventional pattern of an ensemble scene to establish atmosphere. 

Cameos by Robin Follman, Dana Pundt, and especially Mary McLaughlin as the sweet-toothed Suor Dolcina stand out as a foil to the opera’s sudden shift toward something more serious. As the dreaded, ice-hearted Principessa, mezzo Rosalind Plowright is a stunning figure, as rigid and formal as Lorca’s Bernarda Alba and terrifying in her calculated cruelty. Plowright brings even more to the role, though, suggesting the character’s obsession with the memory of her sister (Angelica’s dead mother). As the Abbess, Susan Salas relates to Angelica in a way that reflects the domineering will of the Principessa. 

Pier Paolo Bisleri’s set for “La Voix Humaine” is fittingly minimalist, more like an impersonal hotel room than a domestic space, with looming dimensions to exaggerate Elle’s isolation. He presents Puccini’s Siennese convent as a comforting garden space dominated by a statue of Mary. Connie Yun’s lighting design works especially well here, taking us from the large scale to the inner emotions of Sister Angelica. In the Poulenc, oddly, her lighting remains largely static, unresponsive to the emotional kaleidoscope. 

Conductor Gary Thor Wedow makes a very welcome return to the pit. Best known for his excellent work with baroque and classical rep, he brings a keen sympathy to Poulenc’s nuanced musical dramaturgy. It may have been a spillover effect, but to my ears his Puccini, too, has a slightly French touch in the refined shaping of phrases – though there’s no lack of gripping passion.

If you go: Seattle Opera’s Poulenc-Puccini double bill runs through on Saturday, May 18, at McCaw Hall,  321 Mercer St., 206 389-7676.

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