‘Come on now, be honest! Which one of you wouldn’t rather listen to his hairdresser than Hercules? Or Horatius, or Orpheus… people so lofty they sound as if they sh*t marble!’
As a child, I was thrilled by this speech in Amadeus (no doubt partly because of a word that was strictly embargoed). I don’t agree entirely with Mozart’s rant: I love performing Handel, Hasse, Gluck, and of course, Mozart, and I relish opera plots filled with deities and royalty. But that momentary frisson from the film came back to me when I first encountered Poulenc’s monologue opera, La Voix Humaine.
It’s a great opera about an unremarkable person. It’s conversational, colloquial, and it takes place in real time. There are mundane, quotidian moments that establish a universal theme – not just about lost love but about something much less romantic: the urge that we have to manipulate others, and even humiliate ourselves, when we are not in command of a situation, or are fearful of not getting what we believe we need.
Elle is desperately, recklessly in love. He hasn’t treated her kindly (‘For five years,’ she says, ‘I’ve lived through you…passed time just waiting for you…‘) and, the day after breaking up with her, he phones her, not to change his mind (which she wills so forcefully) but to retrieve their love letters (which she refuses to release). For forty-five agonising minutes, we hear Elle on the telephone using every imaginable means to convince him to come back to her.
I’d suggest that most of us have been in a position in which we are desperate to wrest control, and simply can’t. With Elle, it happens to be to do with love – obsessive, undignified, all-absorbing. She is prepared to lose everything – to give it all away – to get anything back. With Cocteau’s words and Poulenc’s notes, she colours every shade of persuasion and manipulation – from invoking precious moments of nostalgia with filigree charm, to a mortifying self-debasement that is difficult to witness.
To me, this piece is inseparable from Paris. When I first visited as a teenager I was instantly fascinated by the city – with its facades of haughty, grubby, secretive windows, behind which I presumed that peculiarly French dramas took place. Since I’ve known La Voix Humaine, I’ve looked up at buildings while walking through the city and thought, ‘That could be her room,’ (in the suburb of Passy, Poulenc said) or, ‘He’d live there,’ (somewhere smarter). The thing is, I could be right about any of those places, because – give or take a couple of foolish, fallible choices and the tragic ending – this story could be almost anyone’s.
Don’t miss Sarah Gabriel’s performance of La Voix Humaine at this year’s Cheltenham Music Festival on Friday 5th July.
Click on the image above to watch a video about La Voix Humaine – promoting a new DVD featuring Felicity Lott, who performs in event M32 on Friday 12 July.
Sarah Gabriel’s performance of La Voix Humaine at Cheltenham Music Festival is a a brand new English translation.