Why is it that heroines in opera rarely end well? They throw themselves off buildings (Tosca, recently done superbly by Northern Ireland Opera) and in The Human Voice by Francis Poulenc, talk - or sing - tragically on the phone with a very long lead. La Voix Humaine, in its original language, is coming to The MAC as part of NI Opera’s intimate Salon series on October 19. This short opera is sad, as you’ll have guessed, but also affecting, darkly funny in places, relatable as we learn our unnamed, universal heroine has lost her love to a new woman. The music stutters as our heroine suffers crossed lines. You know it’s the end of the affair, partly from her words but also the score. The woman starts anxiously with “Hello, hello” against discordant music and hard, jazzy rhythms on the piano.
We then eavesdrop on one side of a relationship. Her mood moves from tenderness to neediness as she calls her ex-lover back each time they’re cut off. She recalls happier days when her head was “pressed against his chest”. Poulenc called the opera a musical confession, and it is. Based on a play by Jean Cocteau which opened in Paris in 1959, the show originally had the great Maria Callas as a possible singer. But Poulenc was keen on casting his friend, Denise Duval, maybe because he knew her fragile back story. They both took tranquillisers, had known love and loss. In fact, Poulenc called Duval his “co-composer” who he thought would bring anguish to the role. She did, and the original staging including bottles of pills as props. They apparently cried together as they worked through the story. As ever, the ending is tragic but super dramatic. and Poulenc said they wept “page by page, bar by bar” while working on the story. This everywoman belongs to our anxious age, refers to nearly ending it all once before. She is, above all, believable. Her operatic breakdown as she learns her lover is getting married next day produces a howl of anguish with some upper notes as powerful as any in Madama Butterfly. She ends singing “I love you” four times into the void, reaches for the telephone cord, and we feel her pain.#
As Downpatrick born soprano Mary McCabe, who doesn’t stint on the emotion or colour (and is a fan of Freddie Mercury and Luciano Pavarotti), says: “It’s a dream come true to interpret this anguished woman in Poulenc’s opera. As soon as I began to explore this one woman opera, I felt it fitted my voice and temperament so perfectly and it’s been exciting to explore it with director Cameron Menzies and pianist David Quigley. It’s my first time in The MAC and as this is a must-see, I hope for a good crowd there.” It’s compelling, and unquestionably worth an hour of your time.
The MAC (maclive.com)19 October, first in Northern Ireland Opera’s Salon series