Barbara Paterson’s moving operatic portrayal of love in crisis in Poulenc’s monodrama

The Human Voice (La voix humaine) by Françis Poulenc based on the play by Jean Cocteau. Translated by Johana Arnold and Barbara Paterson

Barbara Paterson (soprano) with Gabriela Glapska (piano)
Tabitha Arthur – director; Meredith Dooley – costumier; Isadora Lao – lighting designer and operator

Gallery of the New Zealand Academy of Fine Arts, Queen’s Wharf

Friday 27 February 6 pm

My colleague Peter Mechen reviewed what might have been considered the preview performance of Poulenc’s monodrama La voix humaine, on 31 January.

But being a huge fan of Poulenc I felt that Paterson’s performance in the Festival itself deserved attention.

La voix humaine is one of the most remarkable operatic pieces: not merely of the 20th century; not merely on account of the music which is a tremblingly vivid evocation of Elle’s mental fragility; but also in the way it deals so illuminatingly with her behaviour, her dependence on and interaction with a lover who has evidently decided to quit.

Sometimes the substitution of an orchestra by a piano seems to be a serious loss, with its more limited ability to interpret emotions and to provide rewarding support. Here the piano, with the shrill ringing of the telephone right at the beginning, hurled us straight into her emotional turmoil; it seemed just as chilling as the original score’s xylophone.

In addition, I am usually a strong advocate for the use of the original language in song and opera, but here, the singer’s total immersion in Elle’s mind and emotional state overcame any such feelings, even any feeling that English was not the original language. Johana Arnold’s translation was a perfect fit, though I couldn’t prevent a certain curiosity about how a performance in French might have intensified the impact in certain ways. (I have heard it, not live I think, in the original).

The performance opened with what sounded like a rifle shot: I wasn’t sure whether it was an external coincidence or a hint of the ultimate possibility of suicide.

The phone rings chillingly on the piano, and she picks it up but there’s no connection; it rings again, but now it’s a call for someone else, and there are several further rings before finally, it’s her lover. And now Paterson’s virtuosic performance immediately finds expression for her desperation and panic, alternating with attempts to sound rational, with the knowledge or at least fear that he wants to break it up, or even that he has done that.

Not all words were clear, smothered often by her uncontrolled outbursts, but her condition and her behaviour remained so conspicuous to the audience that we didn’t need to catch every word.

She grasps at straws: “You are so sweet … I am calm!” And the piano comments on or reveals the constant, overwhelming state of despair and grief that the break-up inflicts on her. It’s common to remark on the fact that an orchestral or other accompaniment is playing a major role in the drama, but there have been few occasions when I’ve felt as strongly about the vital role of the piano as I did here.

The telephone’s role
The drama continues with a succession of broken connections, whether by her former lover or through an operator’s mistake, we don’t know. The telephone itself and the omnipresent operator are significant players. I can remember in my childhood the sometimes obtrusive operator and the common ‘party line’ (my family had one), shared with three or four other subscribers, all of which the operator could listen to: the operator was thus privy to most of the scandal in the community. But this was a dimension that was not likely to have been in Poulenc’s mind, when local calls were not monitored by the operator, though Cocteau’s original play was written in 1928, 30 years before Poulenc’s setting.

Often it’s intentionally unclear whether the ‘disconnection’ is by the operator or the lover or whether it’s just something in Elle’s mind that brings about panic, a scream or mad laugh.

Paterson’s repertory of voices and screams allowed what was an overwhelming emotional condition to express to her lover her attempts to appear rational and in control, but exposing herself with the almost terrifying laugh, half-way to wild panic.

About half-way, she uttered a particularly wild scream, quickly suppressed, which led to one of the few beautiful lyrical episodes.

Gabriela Glapska’s piano was almost always the perfect partner, but very occasionally it became so passionately involved that it almost got in the way. Though that could well be attributed to the fact that the piano, like the telephone itself, was an important player.

Patterson’s performance was so comprehensively satisfying, so perfectly attuned to the words and the emotions and the music at every point that one could well have imagined that no histrionic direction was needed, But that becomes the crowning achievement of a sensitive director, merely to refine and enhance a singer’s own instincts so that the result seems to flow entirely from the performer’s own impulses. That was Tabitha Arthur’s achievement, that had her climbing one of two step-ladders at various times; symbolic of Elle’s compulsion to achieve security in an essentially insecure world. And in the lighting, Isadora Lao was similarly unobtrusive but, given the entirely natural feel of the atmosphere, was another case or art concealing art. And Meredith Dooley created Peterson’s wispy, pastel-shaded costume that also spoke of her fragility and insecurity.

There was a smallish audience; but here was a moving, very credible performance that deserved a much larger crowd.


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