|This is my post from this week's Once or Twice a Fortnight.|
As I am sure many of you were, I was saddened to read about the passing of French conductor Georges Prêtre a few days ago. In the obituary prepared by the Guardian, they write that
Duval, who studied drama and took vocal classes at the Bordeaux conservatory, made her debut at the Opéra-Comique in 1947 (Madame Butterfly) The same year she was discovered by Poulenc, and worked closely with him for the rest of his life, credited with creating three roles in his three operas (Thérèse in Les mamelles de Tirésias, Blanche de la Force in Dialogues des Carmélites and the only character (“Elle”) in La voix humaine). Her Opera News obituary continues on the latter role:
La Voix was originally a one-woman play by Jean Cocteau – the same Cocteau who befriended the cohort of French modern composers known today as Les Six, of whom Poulenc was a member in good standing. Cocteau finished writing his play in 1928, and the monodrama was premiered two years later. Cocteau sought to reduce his drama to the "simplest of forms"; the one-act play involves a single character in a single room with a telephone. The character—an anonymous woman referred to only as "Elle" - has been abandoned by her lover and reveals that she has attempted to commit suicide. The play consists of her last conversation with her lover.
Following the success of Dialogues, Hervé Dugardin, the Paris director of Ricordi Publishers, suggested that Poulenc set Cocteau's monodrama to music, with Maria Callas as the lone artist (Callas would, in time, take on the role). Poulenc, however, wrote the opera specifically for Denise Duval; Poulenc's close work with Duval helped his compositional process because he "knew the details of the soprano's stormy love life, and this helped to cultivate a sense of specificity in the opera." Poulenc also identified with Elle's situation, which allowed him to "pour immense anguish into his opera… Like her he abused sleeping pills, tranquilizers and anti-depressants." He thus immersed himself in a deeply personal project with which he easily connected.
Cocteau also worked closely with Poulenc in preparation for the opera's premiere (6 February 1959), providing the stage direction, set design and costumes. The opera met immediate success and went on to be performed at La Scala in Milan, as well as other opera houses around Europe and America.
The libretto is full of tension – the phone connection is constantly interrupted - as Elle reveals the depth of her despair. The libretto leaves Elle’s ultimate fate unresolved – or is it? “J'ai le fil autour de mon cou/ J'ai ta voix autour de mon cou.” (I have the cord around my neck/I have your voice around my neck). Does she strangle herself at the end? Every stage director seems to approach the closing bars differently.
Francis POULENC (1899 –1963)
La voix humaine, FP 171
Monodrama in one-act, French libretto by Jean Cocteau after his play of the same name
Denise Duval, soprano
Orchestre du Théâtre National de l'Opéra-Comique
Georges Prêtre, conducting
French libretto - http://kareol.es/obras/lavozhumana/acto1.htm
(Libretto from original LP – https://www.discogs.com/release/9217...Humaine/images)