Francis Poulenc’s opera La Voix Humaine portrays a woman speaking on the phone for 45 minutes to a lover who is leaving her. After various technical and emotional travails, she embraces the phone, wraps the cord around her neck, and strangles herself. The woman is named “Elle” (“She”), and her predicament is meant to be timeless and universal. Whatever one’s gender or sexual orientation, who has not waited for a former lover to call, overcome by such intense despair that living on seems impossible?
During the pandemic, opera companies worldwide have been pushing the envelope of streamed opera, and Opera Philadelphia recently opened its current season with a film of Poulenc’s classic. It features the renowned American soprano Patricia Racette, who performed this work in Philadelphia three years ago to considerable acclaim.
Poulenc’s intimate study of despair has inspired some great filmed performances, and the Philadelphia version is in certain respects worthy of that legacy. Enhanced by professional cinematography and direction, the action unfolds in what appears to be a luxurious Parisian apartment, to which an old-fashioned décor adds an sense of appropriately plush claustrophobia. Racette is a lovely woman who effortlessly evokes that central figure in the French cultural imagination: the “femme d’un certain âge.”
Racette is a stage animal. In this performance, she goes for broke from the start, overtly trying (and failing) to suppress mounting hysteria. Those who have heard Racette in Puccini will recognize her full-throated, emotionally direct approach—and the poignant metal edge in her voice that helps her achieve it. Pianist Christopher Allen plays robustly, and Director James Darrah adds to the chaos, allowing the camera to spin vertiginously as Racette sprawls on the carpet and careens wildly through deserted hallways.
Such extroverted, essentially verismo interpretations of La Voix Humaine can be exciting, as celebrated performances by Renata Scotto, Anna Caterina Antonacci, Magda Olivero and other Italian divas attest. (Had Poulenc offered the 1959 La Scala premiere of Voix Humaine to Maria Callas, as some suggested at the time, perhaps she would have followed suit.) In an era when opera companies feel compelled to reinterpret canonical operas in ways that attract broader audiences, we should not be surprised to encounter a similar approach in the United States—a country where gushing about personal troubles in public (often for profit) has become a national pastime.
Yet Poulenc never did cast Callas in this role. Instead, he chose his friend and muse, the French soprano Denise Duval—and she gave performances that propelled La Voix Humaine into the operatic canon. Duval is an entirely different type of singer than those above—anything but verismo. Her vocal timbre is fluty and light, her characterization elegant and restrained, and her French diction (honed on the stages of the Folies-Bergère and Opéra Comique) is impeccable.
Poulenc’s choice was deliberate. Introspective reverie was always what he did best. In preparing the libretto, he further toned down the text of Jean Cocteau’s eponymous play to suit a more nuanced understanding of the Elle and her predicament. He wrote a score that reflects his neo-classical tendencies, which reflected the deep influence of Debussy and Satie’s piano music, Schubert’s Lieder, and the Baroque.
To understand exactly what this implies for performers, I recommend to all who have not seen it a one-hour video (“Denise Duval revisited or The Rediscovered Voice: A Master Class on La Voix Humaine,” available on at medici.tv ). In it, the 78-year old Duval instructs a young French soprano in the role. I have never seen a more compelling operatic coaching session.
Duval’s unimaginably subtle line-by-line instructions leave no doubt that, however universal the theme of romantic abandonment may be, Poulenc’s treatment of it in La Voix Humaine is quite subtle, precise and distinct. “Elle” is not Medea, Iphigenia, Butterfly or Ariadne. Her issue is not abandonment by a lover and the grand flights of anger that can follow.
Rather, at a deeper level, the real subject of this opera is the erosion of a single individual’s personal dignity and social identity. The plot traces the process by which Elle involuntarily strips herself psychologically naked in an effort to deny, then reluctantly accept, a fatal truth. Line-by-line, successive shells of social propriety, ironic distance and amour-propre fall away until nothing is left but a single phrase: “I love you and I am nothing.” Yet this final self-revelation is no more than a last gasp, a final way to keep the phone call going. It is hopeless and she knows it. At that point, her death becomes both inevitable and welcome.
We learn from Duval is how Poulenc encoded this subtly yet rigorously into the score. And we learn that for a singer to convey this excruciating evolution, and an audience to maintain their sympathy for her as she does so, the performer must exercise delicate self-restraint, modulating each phrase with exquisitely sensitivity and building up the tension only very slowly. In singing Elle, less is more.
Too often this film (like the live staging in 2018) seems at odds with the understated essence of the work. Racette and Darrah externalize, and thereby diffuse, Elle’s suffering through wild physical movements, overwrought utterances, and camera gimmicks. This only distracts us from the strange process going on inside her: an ever more focused obsession on an impersonal, weirdly disembodied technological device. In the end, only the telephone itself still exists for her, but it is not enough. She clings ever more tightly to it—with her, one hopes, so does the audience—until she is gone.
La Voix Humaine
Music by Francis Poulenc
Libretto by Jean Cocteau
Based on the play by Jean Cocteau
Performed in French with English closed captions
Patricia Racette, Elle; Christopher Allen, Piano; James Darrah, Director. Opera Philadelphia.
Released 25 September 2021.
Available for streaming at Opera Philadelphia Channel.
Above photo: Patricia Racette by Michael Elias Thomas.