Monday, January 9, 2017

La Voix Humaine

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

[At the end of Prêtre’s tenure (1955–1959)] at the Opéra-Comique, in 1959, he conducted the premiere of [FrancisPoulenc’s] phone conversation opera, La Voix Humaine. He believed that the French did not appreciate their own composers enough, and worked tirelessly to promote French music at home and abroad, and on disc. Poulenc found in Prêtre a conductor whom he could trust, and the recordings that emerged from this friendship, notably La Voix Humaine with Denise Duval […] have become classics: Prêtre even expressed irritation that Poulenc would never offer advice at rehearsal, instead contenting himself, after the recording was over, with sharing a bottle of the best champagne.
To further justify today’s post, we should point out that Miss Duval herself passed away at age 94 in January 2016, making it even more pertinent to program a look at Poulenc’s “one-woman opera.

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:

In 1959, she [successfully premiered Elle] in the Jean Cocteau monodrama couture-tailored to her talents by Poulenc […] In 1960, she repeated that triumph for the opera’s British debut (at Edinburgh, with Glyndebourne forces) and its American premiere, as half of an American Opera Society double bill with Mamelles at Carnegie Hall. The latter stirred the Times’s Howard Taubman to write, ‘It is difficult to imagine a more convincing and more affecting performance than Miss Duval’s.’
As stated earlier, La voix is one character opera, thus imposing on the single vocalist the complete burden of conveying the 45-minute drama on her own – no small feat! Sopranos from France, other continental European countries, the UK and the US have performed the solo role, and several of them, beginning with Duval, have recorded it. A quick survey of YouTube provides easily a half-dozen or so “complete:” stage performances of the opera, including an incomplete copy of a 1970 film (by director Dominique Delouche) in which Duval gives a riveting lip-synched performance to her own classic recording of a decade earlier. “I’m proud that my name will always be connected with [Poulenc’s],” she once said. The man who called her “my Duval” would surely have returned the compliment.

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 -
(Libretto from original LP –

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