I’ve seen Francis Poulenc’s monodrama La voix humaine many times and always find it troubling despite that the fact that it is often a vehicle for rather good performances. I was intrigued then by VOICEBOX’ decision to present alongside the Jean Cocteau play on which the opera is based. It really helped me get to grips with what I find uncomfortable about the work.
The basic problem is that it’s misogynist. Whether it’s true that Cocteau created it as a kind of act of revenge for an over-demanding actress I don’t know but it seems plausible. The basic issue is that Elle, the sole character we hear at one end of a telephone conversation with the lover who is leaving her, is little more than a shadow of the man she loves. Cocteau has defined her only in as far as she is some sort of insubstantial reflection of him. She has no life apart from him. Even her dog and cat want to leave her to be with him. Perhaps in the 1930s such women existed in France but I find it hard to care. The fact that Chilina Kennedy plays the woman quite brilliantly merely seems to add to her fundamental lack of substance.
The work is presented in an English language version updated by director Guillermo Silva-Martin to the present with the use of mobile phones. I’ve seen this done with opera too (the phones not the language) and I’m far from sure it’s a good idea. Too much of Cocteau’s play turns on the sociology of phone use and the limitations of the telephone technology of his time. Party lines? Operators?? Why is the woman, when she answers her phone, surprised to find that it’s her lover? Doesn’t she have caller ID? Why does she call him back on his landline? Who even has one anymore? And of course the woman more or less without existence seems even more implausible in the contemporary world. These are, perhaps, not such a big deal and don’t really interfere with one’s experience but they don’t seem to add anything useful either so why do them?
The Poulenc opera version, performed here by Miriam Khalil and Narmina Afandiyeva, has the advantage of Poulenc’s excellent score and it’s extremely well done here. The production setting is similar to the play but here a 1980s vintage landline is used which makes a tiny bit more sense. The similarities allow for a detailed comparison of Khalil and Kennedy’s takes on the character. Khalil’s Elle seems angrier and less resigned than Kennedy’s. There’s more fire about her. This will surprise no-one who knows Miriam. So really good singing and playing and the music helps but it’s still La voix humaine and I still don’t find it particularly enjoyable to watch.
This is a pay for access code ($20) video stream so Vimeo is the chosen platform. That’s pretty much fine as Vimeo seems to be a stable high quality platform when it’s fed high quality AV material, as this is. However it does seem to have issues with at least some versions of Apple TV so if that’s part of your viewing set up you may need to take a different approach. Access codes are still available from Eventbrite and the video should be available until February 19th.
If you like La voix humaine this is definitely worth seeing. Even if, like me, you don’t like it so much, it’s still interesting to see how the opera compares to the original Cocteau play.