A bed, a basin, a bath and a bidet stand like four compass points on the stage that is home to the unidentified Woman in Poulenc's La Voix Humaine - a monologue about a woman driven to suicide by her lover's desertion of her for another. He's the silent "other" on the end of a bright-red telephone, his contributions to their last conversation hanging in the air, unheard. It's a tough challenge for any singer but, in collaboration with the director Deborah Warner, Joan Rodgers provides a harrowing account of the Woman's state of mind in her final hours.
Dressed in a skimpy chemise, Rodgers appears to be living through the emotions she's expressing. Her body language speaks as loudly as her words (freshly translated by Richard Stokes), her hand shaking over the phone whose cradle she caresses, her voice trembling as she pleads in vain with her former lover. And when she doubles up, clutching her stomach before vomiting, the awfulness of her situation sinks in.
The part demands as wide a dynamic and tonal range as it does emotional curve yet, while Rodgers may reach the depths of histrionic despair, her performance is never less than polished. At times it's easy to imagine she's improvising her response to each twist in Cocteau's scenario.
A blank screen hangs slightly superfluously over Tom Pye's otherwise stylish set, evocatively lit by Jean Kalman. The screen reflects both the shadowy and then blank state of the Woman's mind as well as the crackling, unreliable phone connections. Its slow descent at the end suggests a shutting down of all communication. Taking a hint from Cocteau's closing words from the Woman instructing her lover to "Cut"(meaning the telephone conversation), Warner has Rodgers slowly slit her wrist. The man on "Auteuil 04 virgule 7" certainly won't be hearing from her again.
Forty-eight minutes hardly makes an evening at the opera - Opera North could usefully combine La Voix with an opera based on a similar theme, Dido and Aeneas, in a revival. However, when the experience is as intense as in this production, sensitively conducted by Paul Watkins whose expressive beat captures the pace of Poulenc's episodic writing, there's no denying it provides a genuine dramatic experience.
Touring, in rep, to 9 December (see www.operanorth.co.uk)