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The Character of L

11 February 2021

In David Pountney’s production of Poulenc’s La voix humaine for Welsh National Opera, the character the plot revolves around is named ‘L’. She is the sole character and both times we have put on the opera, Claire Booth has sung the role. We asked her for her thoughts on L, what she sees as the background of the character, who she believes L to be and how she approaches the role:

‘The story we see at the beginning of the opera is quite banal – she’s a woman alone at home in her apartment. In terms of her relationship, it’s clear this is over, and the original French libretto [where she is known as Elle] hints to her position either as a mistress, or part of a clandestine relationship kept somewhat in the background.

Whether her accommodation was somehow a quid pro quo of the relationship is unclear, leading us to question whether she is a ‘kept woman’ or has means of her own. I’ve always felt that this woman is capable of holding down a job, but that this relationship has morphed into the only thing that both defines and sustains her. Whatever her employment is, it neither gives her satisfaction or self-confidence. The fact she is being ‘passed over’ for another (newer maybe?) model might lead us to believe that she’s an older woman. To some degree, whether her replacement is younger / more sophisticated / a different class is irrelevant, somehow L understands that she’s unable to compete.

The time has evidently come for her partner to move forward in another, more ‘appropriate’, relationship. Towards marriage perhaps? So, L has not only been dumped, but all traces of the affair are to be erased – the unseen ex-lover demands any photos and letters in her possession be returned to him.

The myriad of ways in which L conducts herself during the piece indicate that she is – at times – an extrovert; she is capable of fun, of spontaneity, and she can be a risk-taker. But the opera forces the audience to question ‘at what cost?’ What series of circumstances has reduced this woman [spoiler alert!] to taking an overdose? We have the sensation that, rather than her character developing throughout the opera, all its facets are merely revealed. We find ourselves revisiting lines that she utters early on, questioning and doubting her motives. At times underestimating her ability to control the situation, at others feeling overwhelmed by the dramatic irony of her plight.

L reveals a gamut of human emotions – she can be vulnerable, trusting, deceitful, a minx, a victim. It is quite hard to find a similar character elsewhere in opera as, so often, female characters can seem wholly good or wholly trusting, perhaps one may be somewhat naughty but with a good heart, often a victim of circumstance.

Perhaps because her first incarnation was in Cocteau’s drama rather than Poulenc’s opera, she has more in common with literary characters than opera divas. In La voix humaine there’s evidently a freedom to describe all aspects of her demeanour – more Anna Karenina, less Anne Truelove.  Going through the operatic canon, characters seem to be less finely drawn and nuance and complexity are usually drawn out by the director, rather than being there, in the text. We may find a troubled Handelian heroine or a confused Donizetti diva, but in terms of libretto these are rooted – more-often-than-not – in stereotype or pastiche. There are of course nuanced protagonists, from Elvira to Ellen Orford; but even then, the nature of operatic text often leaves little space to render these complex characters ‘whole’. The beauty of L is that her entire character is described – both through her words and her silence – in glorious technicolour.

If L feels real on the page, then she has the potential to fit like a glove in performance. The opera’s themes of loneliness, loss, connection and love are apposite to all humans, and therefore to performers too. So, sadly, it’s not hard to find real life experiences which chime with L’s sense of abandonment… but also her refusal to give up hope.’