Arts & Events

New: LA VOIX HUMAINE: “Can You Hear Me Now?”

Reviewed by James Roy MacBean
Sunday March 19, 2017 - 02:12:00 PM

Under the auspices of San Francisco Opera Lab, Francis Poulenc’s one-act opera La Voix Humaine, set to a text by Jean Cocteau, was given three performances March 11, 14, and 17 at Taube Atrium Theatre. Italian soprano Anna Caterina Antonacci, who was last heard here in 2015 as Cassandre in Berlioz’s Les Troyens and as Cesira in the world premiere of Marco Tutino’s Two Women, sang the role of the never-named woman whose voice is the only one we hear in La Voix Humaine as she talks on the telephone with her lover of five years who is now breaking up with her, much to her distress. We hear nothing of the man on the other end of the phone line. The full weight of this opera must be carried by one singing actress who can make it work dramatically. 

As if this weren’t daunting enough, the play by Cocteau has been famously performed by Anna Magnani in Italian in the 1948 film Una voce humana directed by Roberto Rossellini, and by Ingrid Bergman in an English version made for ABC Stage 67 in 1976. Magnani and Bergman are hard acts to follow; and Anna Caterina Antonacci certainly commands our respect for taking on such a task. Moreover, she was brilliant in the role of the woman ‘of a certain age’ who finds herself jilted by her lover. 

Cocteau wrote the play in 1930, basing it on the breakup of a homosexual couple he knew. In writing the play, however, Cocteau made it about a heterosexual woman who is left in the lurch by her lover. Cocteau, himself a gay man, wasn’t particularly sympathetic to his woman protagonist in La Voix Humaine. In fact, many see this story – play and/or opera – as quite misogynist. The female protagonist, Elle, in La Voix Humaine is almost a caricature of the grasping woman who will do and say anything in the faint hope of keeping her man. She lies to her ex-lover, telling him at one point she is wearing his favorite dress though she reveals later she is wearing something else. She lies about spending the day enjoyably with a woman friend, Martha, when in fact she reveals later that she did no such thing and was so distressed she couldn’t even eat. She also lies when she says repeatedly that she’s taking their breakup quite well, when it becomes more and more clear as the nearly 40-minute phone call develops that she is a complete mess, and has even attempted suicide the night before. She also catches her lover in a lie, for though at one point we infer from the questions she asks that he says he is calling her from his place; when their conversation is suddenly cut off and the line goes dead, she calls him back at his place, only to get the servant Joseph who apparently informs her that “Monsieur is not in and won’t be returning home tonight.” (She repeats his words, which is how we know what Joseph said.) We --and she-- infer that her lover has called her from his new mistress’s place.  

It’s all a bit campy and melodramatic, and it reminds me of several scenes in Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s film Die Bitteren Tränen der Petra von Kant (The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant). In any case, Anna Caterina Antonacci handled all the dramatic difficulties of this role quite splendidly, even throwing herself on the floor at one point à la Petra von Kant. Anna Caterina Antonacci’s voice is sumptuous, and she used it expressively in La Voix Humaine. At times, in a vain effort to win back her ex-lover, she sang caressingly. At other times, when suffering from wounded pride, her voice became strident. Ms. Antonacci’s French was totally comprehensible in La Voix Humaine, though this was by no means always the case in the French chansons she performed that served as the first half of the evening’s program. The reason for this may lie in the accompaniment of pianist Donald Sulzon, who tended to overplay the piano part in the art songs, whereas in La Voix Humaine he played a more discreet role, only blaring forth at times when the dramatic situation called for such an eruption. Incidentally, the score for La Voix Humaine used in these performances was not the original orchestral score composed by Poulenc for the opera’s 1959 premiere but rather an alternative piano score he composed, full of angular motifs and jabbing rhythms. 

Poulenc and Cocteau had known one another for many years going back to the time when Serge Diaghelev first brought his Ballets Russes to Paris, then subsequently established his dance company in Monte Carlo. Poulenc, an openly gay man, and his partner, fellow composer Georges Auric, had spent many happy years in Monte Carlo, “in the imperial shade of Diaghelev,” as Poulenc put it. When in 1959 Poulenc composed the music for La Voix Humaine, Cocteau served as set and costume designer, director, and personal coach to Poulenc’s soprano, Denise Duval. Two years later, Poulenc and Cocteau again joined forces in another one-act, one-person opera featuring Denise Duval, La Dame de Monte Carlo, which I reviewed in the September 26, 2016 issue of this paper when it was presented by Island City Opera.  

As for the French art songs that formed the first half of this Opera Lab program, the song “La mort d’Ophélie”(“The Death of Ophelia”) by Hector Berlioz was a morbidly dramatic rendering of Ophelia’s drowning from Shakespeare’s Hamlet; the songs in the collection “Chansons de Bilitis” by Claude Debussy were shimmering and sensuous; and the songs of “La fraîcheur et le feu” (“The Coolness and the Fire”) by Francis Poulenc set to texts by Paul Éluard were richly allusive. Pity, however, that the words sung in French in these songs were often overwhelmed by the piano accompaniment. Happily, this was not at all a factor in La Voix Humaine, which was a sheer tour de force for Anna Caterina Antonacci.