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Tuesday, April 30, 2013 - Page updated at 05:00 a.m.

Seattle Opera stages Cocteau’s ‘La Voix Humaine’

By Misha Berson
Seattle Times arts writer

A woman. A broken heart. A telephone.

French writer-artist Jean Cocteau knew that stripping a tale of love gone wrong down to these elements would create a theatrical canvas for emotions writ large.

It is not surprising that such prominent actresses as Anna Magnani, Ingrid Bergman and Simone Signoret would eagerly star in Cocteau’s 1930 play “La Voix Humaine” (“The Human Voice”), on stage and screen.

Or that leading French composer Francis Poulenc would want to transform this blazing torch song of a monologue, nearly 30 years after its Paris debut, into a fulsome musical expression of a woman’s heartache — an opera conceived with Cocteau’s blessing and involvement.

Though the tour-de-force piece with a cast of one is well traveled and often recorded, Seattle Opera is just this week premiering its first production of the 40-minute work on a female-centric bill that also includes Giacomo Puccini’s “Suor Angelica.”

It will make for a striking contrast. “Suor Angelica” (part of a tryptich of short Puccini works) is a sentimental study of spiritual crisis and redemption set in a 17th-century Italian convent, a work steeped in religious faith. It features the Seattle debut of Russian soprano Maria Gavrilova in the title role.

“La Voix Humaine” centers on carnal love gone wrong in a modern world of spiritual estrangement and remote communication. And its sole character is a woman whose entire sense of being is invested in a man who is leaving her.

The latter poses obvious challenges and rewards for its star, as Sicilian soprano Nuccia Focile well knows. Focile sang the role in London in 2011, in an English translation. For Seattle Opera, under the direction of Bernard Uzan, she will perform it in the original French.

“It is a very complex character to play,” says Focile, in excellent, lightly accented English, “her personality is quite complicated. This impossible relationship with a man has lasted five years, and driven her completely crazy. And now because it’s the end, their farewell phone call, she feels she can’t go on with life — she feels empty, drained. It’s quite an emotional journey to go through with her.”

The roller-coaster emotions in “La Voix Humaine” begin as the (unnamed) woman anxiously awaits a call she’s expecting — a call of farewell from a longtime lover who will soon marry another.

When they do connect, we hear only her half of the anguished dialogue, and witness her desperate swings from hope to despair, supplication to anger to resignation. Adding to the drama and texture of the piece are interruptions on the phone line, technical glitches during which another conversation suddenly cuts in.

Adapting Cocteau’s play was a deeply personal process for Poulenc, who at that time in his life (1958) was nursing his own heartbreak. The composer viewed “La Voix Humaine” as a “musical confession,” and noted that he and the original singer of the piece, Denise Duval (then enduring her own romantic troubles) would weep together as they worked through the score “page by page, bar by bar,” on this “diary of our suffering.”

Cocteau (best known in the U.S. for his more surrealistic avant-garde films, including “Les Enfants Terrible” and “Orphee”) was thrilled with Poulenc’s nearly verbatim musicalization of his play. “You have fixed, once and for all, the way to speak my text,” he told the composer.

“The libretto and the music marry together so perfectly, because the taste of the music is so French, with that feeling of complete abandon,” says Focile. “There is really everything in this score — lyric moments when the woman is more desperate, more mellow when she remembers the good times. So many colors in one picture, so many different brushes used, from the tiniest to the biggest one.”

While feminist critics have complained that “La Voix Humaine” exemplifies the archetype of a powerless woman living only for the love and approval of a man, the accomplished Focile finds the opera “very believable.”

“I like that this woman is genuine, she’s a real person. There are women like her, who are completely obsessed with love and feeling and so dependent on their lovers. Not all of us. But most of us can relate to some part of her story.”

To better relate to performing the “exhausting, draining” but exhilarating role, Focile gave the woman a name: Edith, after the beloved French singer Edith Piaf, a friend of Cocteau’s with much romantic tragedy in her own life, for whom he wrote another play, “Le Bel Indifferent.”

“Having the image of Edith Piaf I think will help me, because I feel close to her as a woman,” she explains. “ I, too, am petite, with dark hair. Personally I feel closer to her than maybe to other actors or singers who have interpreted the role.”

She is grateful, too, to be working closely with Uzan, and conductor Gary Thor Wedow, on a role she hopes to return to. “Cocteau wrote that it should be played by a young woman, an elegant and sophisticated kind of woman, but I believe it’s a kind of ageless role,” contends Focile. “It’s based on love, and conditional love. You can be 18, or 80, or 50. Love has no age!”

Misha Berson:

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