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Strong and Appealing

Poulenc's 'La voix humaine' at Opera North,
reviewed by PATRIC STANDFORD

 

It was in January 1920, that the Paris music journalist and composer Henri Collet chose six names, perhaps at random because they seemed to be appearing together in recital programmes, and named them Les Six in order to claim a French numerical advantage over the Russian Five. Among them was the charming, precocious, musically untutored and financially independent Francis Poulenc and alighting among them (because he much enjoyed the company of composers) was the clever, equally precocious and eccentric artist Jean Cocteau. Poulenc had already set some of Cocteau's texts (Cocardes) in 1919, but despite his ubiquitous influence over French artistic life, it was to be four decades before the two worked together on anything, and then, like the proverbial taxis, two collaborations came close upon each other.

Joan Rodgers as The Woman in Poulenc's 'La voix humaine' at Opera North. Photo © 2006 Clive Barda
Joan Rodgers as The Woman in Poulenc's 'La voix humaine' at Opera North. Photo © 2006 Clive Barda

The first was La voix humaine, Cocteau's dramatic one-sided telephone conversation which had been staged with great success in 1930. The result of this collaboration was first seen in Paris in February 1959. It concerns a young woman's abandonment by her unnamed lover whom she tries, by a series of feminine ploys, to keep talking on the telephone, despite curious interruptions. She even admits to having attempted suicide, but all to no avail. He finally rings off for good. It is a remarkable piece of writing.

Joan Rodgers in Poulenc's 'La voix humaine' at Opera North. Photo © 2006 Clive Barda
Joan Rodgers in Poulenc's 'La voix humaine' at Opera North. Photo © 2006 Clive Barda

Cocteau clearly understood women, love and rejection remarkably well -- but so too did Poulenc -- and it is the electric amalgamation of emotional and artistic perception that makes this 45-minute piece of theatre so compelling. It does however need a powerful actress to hold the stage in what is rarely more than a beautiful recitative for so long, and one which needs a careful collaboration between singer and conductor to shape the long pauses and excesses of metric freedom.

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Copyright © 11 November 2006 Patric Standford, Wakefield UK

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