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One act, one woman, one room

3 November 2020

La voix humaine, written by Francis Poulenc in 1958, is the French composer’s setting of Jean Cocteau’s monologue (first staged in 1930); originally performed with staging and scenery by Cocteau in 1959 at the Théâtre National de l’Opéra-Comique in Paris. It is believed that Poulenc wrote the piece for the French soprano Denise Duval, who was also involved in its production.

An opera that isn’t performed that often – although this year’s unforeseen situation has brought forth a number of productions around the world (in fact Spanish director Pedro Almodóvar has even made a film based on Cocteau’s play). This is Welsh National Opera’s second performance of Poulenc’s La voix humaine in the past four years (previously in 2016), neither time have we presented it on stage but instead used its uniqueness to produce it in less traditional ways.

Throughout the one-sided story of the breakdown of a relationship, in La voix humaine (aka The Human Voice) all the audience get to see and hear is a woman on the phone. You don’t hear the other person on the call. It is just one voice, one half of a conversation, and that one voice – backed by an orchestra (or sometimes just a piano in a version that Poulenc himself performed several times) – goes through the range of emotions, taking the audience with it, to devastating effect – this is not a family opera. There is talk of suicide as well as loss, there is desperation, pleading, [even hysteria], jealousy and anger, but ultimately acceptance – not to give the allusion of it ending in a positive way, which it certainly doesn’t.

Cocteau’s monologue, written almost three decades earlier than the opera, deals with the breakdown of the single character, L, whose phone call with her ex is the sole focus of the plot. We only hear her half of the conversation, with Poulenc’s music sometimes becoming, in a sense, another voice adding to the emotional weight. At other times the music merely presents the actual: the ring of the telephone, or a snippet of jazz coming down the phone line. The motif of the phone ringing helps to segment the opera, almost as if marking a change in scene or act although there are none. It is all based inside her home, where she is sat waiting for the call.

The call itself is not straightforward – with many cut-offs, wrong numbers and other connection issues – and she has been waiting for it, for a long time. The call is from her lover who is already with someone else and sees it as over, whereas L sees it as a last chance to save the relationship. Through the call, her side of the conversation and her actions as time passes, we see her fragile mental state break down completely – she reaches the brink.

Simply put, it is a tale of unrequited love and a woman’s struggle with depression, all confined within the four walls of her apartment and played out in just one act that lasts for approximately 40 minutes. The British Theatre Guide calls it ‘an ideal introduction to 20th century opera’; watch our new version to decide for yourself.