Poulenc: La voix humaine; Benjamin: Le gateau d’anniversaire

Rebecca Lea and Radius

Purcell Room, 25 September 2010 4 stars

Rebecca LeaI'm ashamed to admit that I didn't know Poulenc's La voix humaine before this evening, but Rebecca Lea's quite stunning performance has made me desperate to see it again as soon as possible.

Jean Cocteau's play, pegged to a 1930s experience of unreliable technology but scored by Poulenc in the technophilic 1950s speaks strongly to the once more techno-sceptic 21st century, a time when technology has never been a greater proxy for personal intimacy and the human voice a more uncertainly valued commodity. In it a woman, clearly frantic, unwell and possibly disturbed, conducts a conversation with her lover – a man who appears to be lying to her, and from whom she will soon break up. The brilliant dramatic hook is that the conversation is conducted by phone: we only see and hear the woman’s side of things. She, by turns, is simpering, kittenish, enraged, desperate and pleading. It’s an exhaustingly rich role, portrayed by Lea brilliantly and without let-up.

Yet despite the scenario's psychological bleakness, Poulenc’s wry humour never quite leaves, especially at moments when the libretto is reduced to contentless strings like ''yes … yes … no … no …''. Such self-deprecation is extremely powerful, constantly wrong-footing the listener in its understatement. The rare occasions (I count two) when the music does break into poetic flight are so much against the grain of the text as to be absolutely harrowing.

Performed with piano only, rather than Poulenc's original orchestra, La voix humaine made an excellent companion to Tim Benjamin's latest piece of chamber music theatre, Le gateau d'anniversaire, here given its British premiere. Both demonstrated the potential of opera in such a radically stripped-down format, and Benjamin's even had its own an air of prewar Paris, or perhaps Weimar Germany, in its surrealistic comedy.

Le gateau d'anniversaire narrates the bedtime, dreams and waking of Louis the baker, a 'paniphile' who takes one of his own baguettes to bed with him (''Knead … form … mmm … rise''). In his dreams he is visited by ghoulish women, Marie and Antoinette. Eventually they are banished and Louis is woken by his two sisters, whose birthday it is: Louis has forgotten to make their promised cake. There are many jokes and puns within the libretto on Marie Antoinette and Revolutionary France: my history is not good enough to have got them all by any stretch, but they were greatly enjoyed by many members of the audience.

Le GateauComparison of the two operas is useful, particularly for their very different deployment of restricted musical resources. Poulenc's piano is courageously and imaginatively written full of holes, silences and false starts – echoing the halting conversation we hear between Elle and her soon-to-be-ex lover over the phone. Sometimes the piano supports Elle, sometimes it stands in for the voice of the lover, and sometimes it acts as a bridge between the two. (Quite how Poulenc distinguishes the last two from each other I’m not sure, but it’s an effect I clearly remember.)

Poulenc's piano thus takes on a flexible stage presence of its own (with an agility that must surely be lost in any orchestral staging). Benjamin's, however, is a more continuous thread, a soundtrack to the action more than a participant in it. It has fewer recognisably recurring themes or motifs, although at certain points – the beginning, for example, or the climactic declamation of Droits de l'Homme et du citoyen – it does settle into periods of gestural homogeneity. As a result I found my attention more firmly focussed on the three singers than on their accompaniment, almost an opera without music.

That's not the damning criticism it sounds like. Really more an observation that it's possible to compose opera according to different prioritisations of music, libretto and theatre. The setting of most of Le gateau d'anniversaire within Louis' dreams would allow for a musical setting that, like Benjamin's, was not clearly goal-directed but lived vividly in the present, trying to make connections along the way. The music gives the words a hyperrealistic sheen but steps back from entering a dialogue with them. My experience certainly matched this: the work could be understood by what could be grasped in the moment, rather than what could be reconstructed through functional harmonic sequences, motivic developments and so on. Musically, I missed a certain depth that Poulenc's approach was able to draw out, but dramatically one was swiftly swept along without question.

Lea directed both performances: her staging of La voix humaine borrowed some clever motifs (such as the long ribbon of telephone wire that slowly unravels, catches in tense webs on bits of furniture, and is occasionally gathered together and tidied once more) from a previous performance in which she was directed by Poppy Burton-Morgan, but both pieces were neatly conceived. It was only a pity that a proper theatre for chamber opera, rather than the dull box of the Purcell Room, hadn't been secured as a venue.

By Tim Rutherford-Jonhnson

Photos: Rebecca Lea in La voix humaine at the Purcell Room; Le gâteau d’anniversaire.

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