Supported by generous help from the Turnovsky Endowment Trust

Poulenc’s “La Vox Humaine” given a stunning performance

By , 31/01/2020

Francis POULENC – The Human Voice (“La voix humaine”)
Words by Jean Cocteau (English translation by Johana Arnold and Barbara Paterson)

Barbara Paterson (soprano)
Gabriela Glapska (piano)

Tabitha Arthur (director)
Meredith Dooley (costumier)
Isadora Lao (lighting designer and operator)

{Suite} Gallery, 241 Cuba St., Te Aro, Wellington

Friday 31st January 2020

As we took our seats in the confined spaces of Cuba St.’s Suite gallery, pianist Gabriela Glapska was playing the music of Satie, beautifully coalescing the sounds of the composer’s Gymnopedies, the dance figurations wrought by the pianist almost as “held” as if depicted on a Grecian urn and the tones as “imagined” as they were real – “heard melodies are sweet, but…..” – here, time seemed to be slowed down, every note taking on a suspenseful, becalmed feeling, so much so that I thought Debussy’s Clair de lune which followed broke the spell that had been created (perhaps one of the Gnossiennes may have carried us further along, and into the ensuing silence more appropriately) …………. however, after the piano fell silent I was drawn into  the breathless poise of the stage setting’s opening, with singer Barbara Paterson (as “Elle”, the show’s only on-stage performer) having entered, the character tremulously waiting for what must have been a prearranged telephone call, the silences deliciously redolent with expectation and anxiety, impatience and foreboding.

Our viewing space’s angular intimacy was augmented by asymmetrically-placed ladders and a structural pillar for a centrepiece to boot, besides the art displayed on the gallery walls, Megan Archer’s depictions of what looked like entwined, almost convoluted limbs in various “clinches” underpinning the claustrophobia of the surroundings. The lighting seemed at first impersonal a la a hotel suite or utilitarian meeting-space, but as the interactive play between Elle and her telephone began to take shape, the hues and intensities of the lights responded to certain influences, reflecting the passing of time, the changing of the day and Elle’s state of mind as she struggled to make sense of her interaction with the person (her ex-lover) who had called her.

This was the scenario for a performance of Francis Poulenc’s setting of fellow-countryman Jean Cocteau’s monodrama, La vox humaine, the opera following the original play after a gap of 30 years. In each case a woman is onstage alone throughout, speaking on a telephone with her “ex” from whom she has not long parted. Poulenc worked with the role’s creator, soprano Denise Duval, in adapting Jean Cocteau’s work to operatic form, the composer reducing the original to a more malleable length, and writing for an orchestra as the accompaniment, and, in fact stating at one point that “the work should bathe in the greatest orchestral sensuality”. Duval was the composer’s favourite singer, and the pair seemed ideally matched to tackle what Poulenc described as “a musical confession” – in fact the composer was to describe later how the pair wept together “page-by-page, bar-by-bar” in what he called “a diary of our suffering” – both composer and singer had recently undergone emotional crises, obviously bringing their experiences to bear on these outpourings. Despite Poulenc’s remark concerning orchestral sensuality (I have listened to several performances with orchestral accompaniment) I thought Gabriela Glapska’s piano-playing here beautifully abstracted the colour in the orchestral score and gave us an immediacy of interaction between Elle and her “ex” whose direct quality had a definite and focused impact of their own – and singer and piano could and did, in those intimate spaces of Cuba St’s Suite venue, run a gamut of radiant, searing, euphoric and despairing emotion which made a proper foil for the myriads of more lyrical and intimate moments.

Though the opera was given in English on this occasion, I’m going to briefly revert to the work’s original language in describing this performance by singer and pianist as a veritable tour de force! (incidentally, this was a translation made, and previously performed, by an American soprano, Johana Arnold, who is in fact the mother of THIS performance’s “Elle”!) The opening “charged” silences during which Barbara Paterson compellingly held our attention while waiting for her telephone to ring were nothing short of riveting, her aspect conveying to us both her vulnerability and her determination, with movements affecting a measure of command and confidence but all too readily revealing tension and uncertainty when put under pressure, responding with bird-like rapidity to the telephone’s ringing and various unwanted external interruptions.  Both her face and form displayed remarkable aspects of grace and fluidity throughout (such as her almost coquettish teasing of her “ex” in places, as if either forgetting or choosing to ignore their actual disfunctionality) when contrasted with her rapid, almost furtive reactions to moments of shock or conflict, often succeeded by sequences of deflation and despair as if she suddenly felt drained of energy and will. Incidentally, I was pleased there was a “proper” telephone, and thought the interactions of the singer with the medium totally in keeping with telephonic use at the time – the interruptions of the singer’s conversation with her “ex” by somebody using a “party line”, though outside present-day telephonic experience, are nevertheless significant here, as they underline and indeed symbolise the overall breakdown of the relationship and its presently fraught concourse.

Always Paterson’s movements and expressions synchronised beautifully with both the words and the unheard voices of the people who talked with her, the telephone operator at the very beginning, the party-line neighbour, and, of course, her “ex”, whose status as such we didn’t really “pick up” on until that lump-in-the-throat moment where Elle plaintively responded to a request from him for a “bag” of what she called “your letters and mine” with the submissive words “You can send for it when you like”, conveying the “hurt” of the request all the more poignantly with the phrase “I had no idea you wanted them so quickly” , and of course when contrasted with the playful sensuality and kittenish aspect that entered her description for him (all a fabrication) of what she was wearing at that time.

The singer’s own arresting looks and engaging stage personality couldn’t help but sharpen the focus of our conjecture generated by her character’s relationship’s obvious dissolution – and throughout all of the possible scenarios were adroitly “brushed into” the opera’s action by the production, momentarily reflecting the attitudes and behaviours of both characters and as quickly superseded by other possibilities. Volatilities were suggested on both sides, with Elle in places abruptly and passionately responding to both her own realisations of her conflicted state and her ex’s “anger” in places as a result of things she had said, her more agitated irruptions sometimes ending in tears.  She’s shown as a romantic dreamer, whether by nature or by artifice or both – at one point the mood created by some exquisite pianissimo singing was broken by her own realisation that she was in a dream of denial, while the world pursued its own course, leaving her stranded. Her attempts to preserve the vestiges of an old intimacy was given a wonderful sensuality in places, no more so when she used the piano as if it were her lover’s body, stretching out upon it at one point as if reimagining her words “when we were in bed and I had my head in that small place against your chest”, making the intrusion of the loud music from the ‘phone all the more symptomatic. The subsequent “confession” to him that “what is really hard to bear is the second night, and the third….” is the most enduring impression of all, the mood evoked by singer and pianist readily bringing pathos as we empathise with her predicament, the empty despair of “and getting up and going out, and to go – where?” unequivocally laying all of our emotions bare…….

Very great credit to all concerned regarding this production, the performers’ sterling efforts backed up steadfastedly by Tabitha Arthur’s fluid, naturalistic and unobtrusive direction and Isadora Lao’s sensitively-wrought illuminations. Such finely-crafted and deeply-committed presentations deserve the widest possible currency, as well as the heartfelt thanks of those of us fortunate enough to enjoy what was, for this audience member, a profoundly moving experience

Further performances –
NZ Academy of Fine Arts, 1 Queens Wharf, Wellington
27 – 29 February 2020
6pm
BUY TICKETS

 

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