Wednesday, March 22, 2017

A Mouth is Not for Talking: La Voix humaine @ National Sawdust

Most people would admit they wished they used their smart-phones less. Just last week NPR’s Fresh Air broadcasted an interview (linked to below) about how addictive technology that at first seems like a social boon can turn into an isolating element. The idea of technology interfering with interpersonal relationships is not new. In 1928 Jean Cocteau penned a monodrama “La Voix humaine” (translated to “The Human Voice”) centering on an anonymous woman, Elle (“she” in English), by herself in a room having the final heart-rending conversation over the telephone with her soon to be ex-lover. Isolation pervades the piece. The audience not only never meets the lover but never hears his voice or his side of the story. To add insult to injury, interruptions frequently interfere with the phone line that functions as the final, tenuous, unreliable link between the two lovers.

For Francis Poulenc, who towards the end of his life set a reduced version of the play for orchestra and soprano, the play’s themes of isolation and abandonment struck a personal chord. Poulenc feared that Louis Gautier, a 29-year-old lover he had recently met, would abandon him in his final years. In a letter to his publisher written while composing “La Voix humaine”, Poulenc wrote “Blanche [referring to the protagonist in his masterpiece “Dialogues des Carmélites”] was me, and Elle is me again, and Louis, by anticipation. Life will necessarily take him from me in one way or another, that angel. He is exquisite to me and is a tender, polite, and deferential son (except at certain moments!)”1 Elle’s outbursts, expressing Poulenc’s personal trepidation, are deeply felt and without irony.

Billed as “A Mouth is Not for Talking: La Voix humaine” referring to a poem entitled “Forget the World” written by the popular 13th century mystic poet Rumi, this invigoratingly imaginative production of Poulenc’s “La Voix humaine” mounted at National Sawdust for one night only starred soprano Laura Bohn as Elle and pianist Mila Henry in the dual role of Poulenc’s orchestra and Elle’s counterpart. Directed by Mary Birnbaum with projection design by Hannah Wasileski and lighting design by Bruch Steinberg, the production is part of the National Sawdust’s 2017 SPRING REVOLUTION Festival. The festival is geared towards “two female attributes: empowerment, and discourse” explored through music and conversation.
Ms. Birnbaum setup the production’s comedic point of view in the show’s first moments. Ms. Henry entered and set a laptop in the middle of the stage, calling to the tech crew to make sure things were ready. The familiar sounds of a Skype conversation bubbled up and Ms. Bohn as her real-life self was projected onto the back wall. She seemed to be in a bedroom or hotel room and claimed that she had missed her flight from Amsterdam. They would have to perform the opera remotely. Bohn kept her promise ripping sheets of supertitles off a pad displayed on an easel next to her bed as she finished each phrase or two.

Then, as anyone who has relied on Skype would expect, the video began cutting out before dropping the call entirely. Flustered, Ms. Henry called up to the crew. Then her cell phone rang. The opera begins with a crossed phone line interfered with by an unwanted stranger.  Ms. Henry answered the phone and sang the opening of the piece herself as though she were trying but still failing to connect to Elle; a deliciously layered moment of meta-drama that set the stage for a diverting evening devoid of art-music pretension.

The drama revolves around Elle, and in a traditional production, with the help of the orchestra, is entirely Elle. Agitated, angry, and woeful, Laura Bohn’s Elle treaded through the thick conflict hoisted upon her by her relentlessly untender lover. We never see the lover nor hear his voice yet Ms. Bohn projected him clearly to the audience as an overbearing force indifferent to her suffering. Musical passages that allow for tenderness were delivered with venom. Hardly any affection remained between the couple.

Ms. Bohn’s Elle was driven by desperation – her lover possesses an essential part of her that she struggles to leave behind – but she was hardly tethered by the allure of potentially recovered sensuality. Ms. Bohn trimmed the lush musical passages of their fat eschewing rubato in favor of a stricter interpretation of musical time. Elle describes falling asleep after taking too many sleeping pills, dreaming that her lover abandoned her. She awakes glad to have merely dreamt the scene but immediately her gladness morphs to horror as she realizes their relationship is in fact over. Poulenc summons the forces of Verdi and Mussorgsky writing full throated passages for a voice like Renata Tebaldi’s (for whom early on Poulenc considered writing the piece). But Ms. Bohn and Ms. Henry pushed determinedly through the passages in strict tempo suggesting that Elle cannot indulge an ounce of sentimentality for this man.

A daring and impactful directorial move, Ms. Birnbaum wholly integrated pianist Mila Henry into the dramatic structure of the work as an essential supporting character. Ms. Henry disabled Elle’s avoidance tendencies acting as an antagonistic spirit guide, like a best friend calling out Elle on the hard truths to protect her long-term spiritual needs. Ms. Henry bristled when Elle was spineless or unnecessarily self-deprecating. She related to Elle’s nightmare, projecting tough-love sympathy as Elle exasperatedly exclaimed “Quelle comédie”, the absurdity of it all. Ms. Henry’s character had hard edges too, acting out violently at Elle’s self-pity, throwing Elle to the ground when it seemed like Elle might need her most.

In an astonishing moment, Elle tackled Ms. Henry off her piano bench halting the music. The two wrestled furiously on the ground. Ms. Henry on her way to the floor yelped, “I’m trying to help!” eliciting from the audience cautious laughter tempered by the genuine violence of the encounter and the justified frustration of both women. Never approaching glibness or ironic detachment, Ms. Henry’s character grounded Elle’s journey and facilitated the audience’s experience.

Musically, Ms. Henry communicated the orchestration clearly when possible. It is a shame that the piece is rarely produced with its original instrumentation. Listen to a recording – the orchestration is masterful.

From Ms. Bohn, one hoped for clearer phrase direction and a more savory legato of which she is clearly capable. Her voice bloomed beautifully in its top which, in a piece so full of limited-ranged speech rhythm, only increased the desire for her to lean into the vocally expansive moments. The highest note of the piece occurring in the climactic setting of “je devenais folle!” whizzed by with a whiplash effect. With an extended accelerando preceding the climax, the voice at its top and the piano playing a full fisted chord buffered the next beat by extreme low bass octaves, the phrase surely calls for expansion, the rubato written into the musical markings.

But these technicalities are often a function of comfort and with only one performance are easily forgiven. One hopes that the production will see more performances and continue to evolve. The staging is genuinely inventive and the highly capable musicians, director and technical team clearly have a close artistic and interpersonal rapport and distinctive dramatic vision.

Link to the Fresh Air interview:

1From Francis Poulenc by Benjamin Ivry

Review By: Jeremy Hirsch


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