Poulenc's La Voix Humaine: Hanging on the telephone

Opera North's new production of Francis Poulenc's devastating one-woman tour de force connects us directly to heartbreak. Lynne Walker listens to 'La Voix Humaine'
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The Independent Culture

As every agony aunt advises, the one thing not to do when a relationship ends is pick up the phone. Unless you want to apologise, reconcile, or lose every last shred of personal pride you have left, do not call him or her. Until you're completely over it, the phone is not your friend. Yet even with this sound advice ringing in your ears, when you know that the relationship has been "cut off", the telephone seems like a lifeline to happier times.

And when Francis Poulenc was working on his mini-opera on Jean Cocteau's uncompromisingly realistic monologue La Voix Humaine ("The Human Voice", 1930), he knew all about the nature of fear, depression and nervous exhaustion that obsession, rejection and the loss of a lover can bring on. "I'm writing a opera - you know what it's about: a woman (me) is making a last telephone call to her lover who is getting married the next day." Poulenc had recently lost one lover and was enduring an enforced separation from another whom, he felt sure, "life will inevitably take away from me in one way or another". Drawing on his own life, as well as that of his favourite leading lady, the soprano Denise Duval - herself going through an emotional crisis at the time - the composer described La Voix Humaine as a sort of "musical confession". He recalled how he and Duval - cast as the unhappy, solitary protagonist - wept together "page by page, bar by bar", as they worked on it, referring to the piece as "a diary of our suffering".

There's even a photo of Cocteau overwhelmed by emotion during rehearsals at the Opéra-Comique in Paris in 1959, his tears as genuine as his appreciation of Poulenc's skill: "You have fixed, once and for all, the way to speak my text," he wrote to the composer. It's only the words and the music that are reconciled, however, in this drama of separation.

In La Voix Humaine, the heroine spends the whole time on the telephone to her former lover, at first hiding her distress, spinning lies, lapsing into tender endearments, then, as her mask slips, wallowing in self-pity, pleading with him, and making vague threats - "this telephone could be a terrible weapon that would leave no marks nor make a noise." It becomes clear from a burst of jazz that her lover is out on the town and wishes only to be rid of her. Finally, reaching the end of her tether, she winds the telephone cord round her neck and clutches the cradle in her arms. Promising to be brave, "Let's make an end," she urges him to hang up (he already has) and murmurs over and over, "Je t'aime", to an uncaring lover through an unhearing earpiece.

When Deborah Warner, who is directing a new production of La Voix Humaine for Opera North, learnt of the existence of an opera for a woman alone on a big empty stage with just a telephone for company, she was immediately attracted to the project. "It was only later that I discovered her companion was a full orchestra! I was seduced by that idea even before I heard the score. The musical scale is what makes it glorious, sensual and ultimately so profoundly moving."

Joan Rodgers is the lone soprano, the mouthpiece of the angst-ridden Woman, running the gamut of emotions in a part for which she says, "You've got to have been around a bit and experienced the things life does to you. She's a fascinating character - though would you let any man treat you like this? In a strange sort of way she's very honourable, I think. Is she making a big sacrifice in letting him go? Is it such a passionate relationship that they couldn't live without each other but couldn't live with each other? Or is he of such a higher rank than she that he could never have married her and now doesn't even seem able, for some reason, to keep her on as a mistress?"

For Warner, it's the nearest she's come to rehearsing a play with a singer, and she and Rodgers, along with the author of this new English version, Richard Stokes, have been building up a complete picture of the life of the heroine and, even more intriguingly, the man. According to Stokes, "We spent a lot of time trying to work out what the man at the other end of the phone could possibly have said to elicit that particular response from the Woman, and also trying to flesh out such enigmatic characters as the Woman's friend Martha and the lover's shadowy servant Joseph." And in the constant flow of interruptions - the caller who's after Dr Schmidt, the operator, the third party who finds their intimate conversation "so silly" - a parade of invisible bit-part players cross the line. As Rodgers points out, "It's like a layer cake; you keep discovering new depths."

In a burst of inspiration, Poulenc took only a week to decide on his themes and to work out what he was going to write "from A to Z", he said, just like a telephone directory. What he omits from Cocteau's play, unfortunately, is the small but vital piece of information that the Woman's lover is getting married the next day. It has to be implicit in the text and Stokes suggests that when the lover (apparently) asks for the return of his letters, the Woman replies "Je ne savais pas que c'était si rapide." That has been taken to mean "I had no idea you wanted them so quickly," or, as Stokes cunningly interprets it, "I had no idea things were moving so quickly." It's certainly a chilling moment, and one that puts the eavesdropping audience fully in the picture while sending the Woman into "a ghastly state of shock", according to Rodgers.

While it may seem a very intimate piece to be presenting on a large stage, with the audience as voyeur, Warner thinks that Poulenc's score for a large orchestra brings the libretto to us "directly and painfully", demanding a big pit and a big house. "You would not want to perform Cocteau's play in such a space, but the scale is an advantage to the opera," she says. Besides, Poulenc uses the band with tremendous economy out of consideration for the voice of the Woman, with lightning changes of mood and colour painted onto a neurotic canvas.

Whatever the Woman pretends to be feeling, disguising her feelings of panic and desolation in superficial chit-chat, the orchestral colour seems to penetrate her innermost thoughts, reflecting her true state as she teeters dangerously on the edge. A sentimental theme sounds doubly desperate in its poignant reference to an encounter at Versailles, early in their affair. But later the suggestion that the man might take his new partner to "their" hotel in Marseilles thrusts the Woman into a hysterical state.

The most dispassionate instrument is the xylophone, which represents the mechanical ring of the telephone itself and which, true to the pre-war Parisian phone system, notorious for its faulty connections and confusion of crossed lines, is one of the most persistent sounds in the opera. Daringly, there are almost more pregnant pauses than music as the Woman chatters, listens, reacts and responds. There are pointers in the music, says Rodgers, that help with gestures and movements but you have to have "very strong, fixed thought-processes". One of the biggest challenges is maintaining the sheer concentration of inhabiting this kind of role. Much of the melodic interest is in the orchestra and the singer is forced to express vast emotions in often quite fragmentary phrases, a naturalistic kind of heightened speech. "The difficulty is actually the bigger lyrical moments," explains Rodgers. "You can't think, 'Oh good, here comes a big operatic set piece,' because it all has to be contained in Cocteau's and Poulenc's framework."

Is it a Woman's Hour piece? "Far from it," says Rodgers. "Men will certainly relate to it. It's such an intense character study and a concentrated emotional punch in just three-quarters of an hour. Sometimes you feel frustrated and angered with the Woman, and sorry for her, too. But sometimes you don't."

Of course, the development of the telephone, one-time object of loneliness and lovers' discourse, means La Voix Humaine wouldn't happen now. The man would simply text her, and maybe sign off with an absurd "xx".

Grand Theatre, Leeds (08701 251 898) 3 November and 9 December; The Lowry, Salford Quays (08707 875 780) 10 November; Theatre Royal, Nottingham (0115-989 5555) 16 November; Sadler's Wells, London EC1 (08707 377 737) 22 and 24 November; Theatre Royal, Newcastle (08709 055 060) 30 November; (www.operanorth.co.uk)