Poulenc, Francis

VoixDidoFrancis Poulenc - La Voix Humaine

Henry Purcell - Dido and Aeneas

Opera North, 2013 | Wyn Davies, Aletta Collins, Lesley Garrett, Pamela Helen Stephen, Phillip Rhodes, Amy Freston, Gillene Herbert, Heather Shipp, Louise Mott, Jake Arditti, Nicholas Watts, Rebecca Moon | Grand Opera House, Belfast, 8 March 2013

Opera North’s Winter 2103 touring programme wonderfully covers four centuries of music, with Mozart’s La Clemenza di Tito from the 18th century, Verdi’s Otello from the 19th, Francis Poulenc’s La Voix Humaine from the 20th century and Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas from the 17th century. It’s the combination of the latter two operas on the same bill however that represent the widest dynamic in such a way that they hardly seem complementary at all. In reality however - particularly with the source of Dido and Aeneas stretching back 1,000 years to its source in Virgil’s ‘Aeneid‘ - what they demonstrate is the universality and commonality of human emotions that still have resonance in the 21st century.

The common theme that relates the two works is of course one that opera has specialised in over the years - that of the woman seduced, betrayed and abandoned. The two works given here however represent lesser-known examples of that theme and certainly approach it musically and dramatically in very different ways.  As different as they are however, they each present a unique take on the subject and stand as important, powerful pieces that demonstrate the power of expression of the operatic art form.

Composed by Francis Poulenc in 1959 to a libretto by Jean Cocteau based on his own 1930 dramatic monologue, the one-act opera La Voix Humaine is unusual opera work in that it is written to be performed and sung by a single person, and sung moreover as a one-sided conversation that takes place on the telephone. The unnamed woman (’Elle’) is alone in her room, waiting anxiously for a phone-call from her ex-lover. The conversation, occasionally interrupted by the unreliable service and a party-line, reveals that the man who had been her lover for five years is now about to be married to another woman and ‘Elle’ has been contemplating suicide.

There’s an interesting ambiguity and modernity in the fact that the woman’s desire for the warmth of love in the comforting sound of the human voice (la voix humaine) is brought to her electronically through a telephone line, but Poulenc and Cocteau’s little drama abounds in such contradictions and ambiguities. Is it a monologue or really a one-sided dialogue? A dialogue would imply that the conversation is two-way, but it’s clear that there is only one person who hopes to gain or express anything through the conversation. In many respects, the woman is speaking to herself, grasping at the meagre lifeline that is being held out, but only for as long as the call lasts, trying to fool herself that all is not lost. When that is gone all she is left with is that terrifying figure she sees reflected in the mirror before her.

Opera North’s production, directed by Aletta Collins, played further on the ambiguities within the work with some clever visual references to that hateful mirror. It not only reflects the truth about her lie that she is glamorously dressed after an evening dinner date, revealing instead a tired, graying woman on the edge of breakdown contemplating a bottle of pills on the dresser, but she can also see reflected in it all the horrors of her imagination, seeing her ex-lover enjoying parties and affairs with other women. It’s as vivid a visual representation of the harsh reality of the woman’s situation and her mindset as it is possible to imagine.

With Lesley Garrett singing the role of ‘Elle’, it’s also about as effective and expressive a performance of the woman’s situation as you can imagine. Poulenc’s composition of the music and the singing part reflects the cadences of the spoken voice in a similar way to how Janáček would write, with rhythms and pauses, the rising and falling of tones and inflections, but evidently that’s particularly relevant to a work that is called La Voix Humaine. As a singer whose spoken voice alone is most musical, Lesley Garrett is the ideal kind of singer for this kind of piece, even if it is far from the more popular style of singing that she is famous for. Her every gesture and inflection - singing the work in English - was perfectly judged in a way that made her character’s circumstances compelling to watch and her inevitable fate as touching as it was chilling.

Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas (c. 1689) is one of the earliest versions of a subject that Francesco Cavalli first covered in his opera La Didone (1641), but which became something of a standard in the Baroque opera repertoire with at least 50 works adapted to Pietro Metastasio’s libretto (Didone Abbandonata) in the 18th century (including Hasse, Galuppi, Porpora, Vinci and Piccinni). It might not have been the model that Poulenc’s La Voix Humaine draws from, but the essential characteristic of a woman left to face her demons alone is just as vividly depicted in the fate of Dido when her lover Aeneas, who has “stopped over” in Carthage with the fleeing Trojans and abandoned her to fulfil the destiny that the gods have in store for him in Italy.

Although it is fully scored - innovatively without recitative at this stage in the development of opera - and has a larger cast than Poulenc’s mono-opera, the strength of this version of the Dido and Aeneas story (unlike Berlioz’s Les Troyens, to take the most extreme example) is that it similarly focusses all its musical and dramatic elements on the predicament of the lone figure of a woman abandoned. Dido’s confidante Belinda tries to warn her and turn her away from her dark thoughts and Aeneas even appears and attempts to put his case to her, but the opera remains firmly viewed from the perspective of a woman who has suddenly become aware that her youth and happiness are slipping away.

Like the reflections in the mirror of La Voix Humaine, Dido’s thoughts, fears and nightmares are vividly real, given human form in witches and visions of herself - as a younger woman? - that follow her, mimic her, torment her and drive her to her doom. This element is beautifully expressed in Aletta Collins’ direction and Giles Cadle’s set design of the darkened bedroom of long shadows, with spectres in the form of dancers that slip out from under and behind the bed, hovering in the background and persistently at the edge of Dido’s vision until they overwhelm her.

Just as effective is the rhythmic drive of Purcell’s score as performed by the Orchestra of the Opera North under conductor Wyn Davies, switching over to Baroque period instruments after the interval. Although Dido threatened to become swamped by the figures and doppelgangers of her nightmares, there was no danger of Pamela Helen Stephen losing her grip on her character. Purcell’s Dido is as strongly defined as any of the many different depictions of this character in other works. It may be short, around an hour long, but the focus on Dido and her reaction to her predicament is deep and intense. Stephen gave that full expression in her singing, never more so than in those final moments of Dido’s rejection of Aeneas’ weak justifications.

Like the other two productions in this Opera North Winter 2013 touring programme, there was a wonderful completeness and attention to detail in the concept and the execution for both these short works. From the casting of the roles, the direction of the performances, the staging, the costumes and the musical delivery, great care has evidently been put into making sure that everything comes together as a whole to express these works in the best possible light, and that was all the more evident in the complementary approach taken towards works as diverse as La Voix Humaine and Dido and Aeneas, separated by almost 300 years, but shown here still to be vital and relevant in the 21st century.

CarmelitesFrancis Poulenc - Dialogues des Carmélites

Bayerische Staatsoper, Munich 2010 | Kent Nagano, Dmitri Tcherniakov, Alain Vernhes, Susan Gritton, Bernard Richter, Sylvie Brunet, Soile Isokoski, Susanne Resmark, Hélène Guilmette, Heike Grötzinger, Anaïk Morel, Kevin Conners | Bel Air Classiques

Clever modern concept stagings of opera are all very well in the right place and with the right kind of opera. Sometimes however, it just seems perverse to take them out of their original context, particularly when the opera applies to a specific historical period or event that is explicitly referred to in the libretto. There seems little value then in “updating” Poulenc’s 1956 opera Dialogues des Carmélites away from its French Revolutionary setting or the historical incident in 1794 where sixteen nuns from a Carmelite convent in Compiègne were executed for resisting the confiscation of the church’s assets and the dissolution of the order.

You just know however that a controversial director like Dmitri Tcherniakov is never going to go down a conventional route, or even find an intermediary space (like the fine 2008 Nikolaus Lehnhoff production in Hamburg), where the actual themes of the opera beyond the historical setting can be examined, themes relating to the question of life in the face of death, fear of death and the nature of martyrdom for a cause. No, Tcherniakov doesn’t follow any expected route, but what clearly is his intention – as it is in all his productions, whether they actually work for an audience or not – is to attempt to cut the distance between the themes that are sometimes obscured by an overly elaborate and literal period setting, and strip back the staging in order to give the music and the singing the necessary environment that will allow provoke a reaction in the viewer towards the subtext. In the right kind of opera, it’s not so much about imposing a concept or an interpretation or being deliberately obscure for the sake of it, as allowing the audience the space to relate to the themes in their own personal way.

Whether that is achieved in this production of Dialogues des Carmélites recorded at the Bayerische Staatsoper in Munich is however debatable, as the staging seems to do its utmost to actually distance itself from the audience and box it into its own little world (the box within a box idea is also used in Tcherniakov’s staging for Verdi’s Macbeth, released by Bel Air alongside this). The period is non-specific but modern (even though the De la Force family still have a servant and chauffeur-driven coach), and Blanche de la Force certainly doesn’t enter any traditional kind of convent where the nuns wear habits. Perhaps reflecting Blanche’s fear of the world outside – and despite the Prioress Madame de Croissy’s insistence that it is not a refuge – the convent does resemble a women’s refuge, with all the sisters wearing heavy woollen cardigans and sensible skirts, all nursing mugs of hot tea.

There is no reason however why the questions that arise in the opera – making sense of life in the face of approaching death, finding order and meaning in it, and examining how each person individually comes to terms with their mortality – can’t be examined outside of the historical context of the French revolution. Poulenc based the opera on a play by Georges Bernanos, which in turn was based on an original 1931 novel by Gertrud von le Fort (’Die Letzte am Schafott‘), which itself used the subject as a means of commenting on German social disorder following the fall of the Weimar Republic – so it’s certainly artistically valid for Tcherniakov to update the work if it’s in the service of throwing a new light on the themes. What is rather more controversial is that the director radically changes the original ending – which is a really powerful conclusion. Tchernaikov’s finale, which practically turns the original on its head, is just as powerful and dramatic in its own right, but whether it “improves” or casts any further light on the actions of Blanche de la Force is debatable. It could just be that it’s the complete disregard of the traditional approach that is what is really shocking about the ending here, and it results in an equal amount of audible booing and cheers at the director’s curtain call.

At the very least however, Tcherniakov’s staging forces the audience to think about the subject again in a different way, and it’s an opera that really does have a lot of deeper subtexts to be drawn out of it. What makes this production even more worthwhile in this respect is the conducting of Kent Nagano. The music in Dialogues des Carmélites can be a little strange and unsettling, even with some hauntingly beautiful melodies that evoke Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélissande, but Nagano seems to bring out those ambiguous qualities of the opera and its similarities to Debussy even more strongly, with a greater sense of warmth and harmony than, for example the Hamburg production. That harmony and warmth is also more evident in the singing – although not in every case – so I wouldn’t necessarily say that one is better than the other, but I certainly find the interpretation here much more intriguing, creating new resonances and opening up the opera in an unexpected way.

Whether the staging works or not in a live context, it certainly doesn’t come across well on DVD or Blu-ray. The majority of the opera takes place (as you can see from the cover) within a boxed room on the stage. This means that crossbeams frequently get in the way, obscuring the view of the singers, which is further hampered by a gauze screen that softens the image, desaturates the colours and causes hazy netting effects. The HD reproduction of this consequently isn’t good, and the encoding doesn’t really help matters, looking rather blurry in movements. Between the net effect and the encoding, this does appear to be a visually substandard release. (Although the cover states it’s a BD25 disc it is however, as you would expect, BD50 – ie. dual-layer). The audio tracks are better, the singing mostly clear, the orchestration warm and enveloping, but also revealing a good amount of colour and detail. It’s no match for the precise crystalline clarity of the DTS HD-MA 7.1 mix on the Hamburg Staatsoper production, and if you would prefer a more faithful version of the opera I would highly recommend that release, but there are enough intriguing elements in the Nagano/Tcherniakov production to make this certainly worth your time.

CarmelitesFrancis Poulenc - Dialogues des Carmélites

Staatsoper Hamburg, 2008 | Nikolaus Lehnhoff, Andreas Morell, Simone Young, Anne Schwanewilms, Alexia Voulgaridou, Nikolai Schukoff, Wolfgang Schöne | Arthaus Musik

Francis Poulenc’s 1957 opera, for which he both composed the music and wrote the libretto (from a play by Georges Bernanos), has many distinct and individualistic qualities that set it apart, not least of which is the unique subject matter of the execution of Carmelite nuns by French Revolutionaries in 1794. The treatment however is just as fascinating, the subject of death ominously present not only through the novice nun Blanche’s pathological fear of death, through the suffering of ailing Mother Superior and the eventual martyrdom of the nuns, but also in the delicacy of the musical accompaniments that evoke an almost romantic relationship or fascination with the idea of death.

One other notable and unusual aspect of Dialogues des Carmélites is the dominance and importance of female voices, in recitative dialogue and in relation to one another. The opera really is a celebration of the female voice, ranging from soprano to mezzo-soprano and contralto, all used marvellously and, it has to be said, sung magnificently in this production. There are male roles in the opera and they are not insignificant, lending a welcome variety of colour and tone to the overpowering predominance of female singing that could otherwise become a little tiring at such length.

The staging of this Hamburg production is a masterpiece of the minimalist style, well suited to the dark subject matter and achieving incredible intensity and drama mainly from its use of light and shade and some subtle colouration. It’s perhaps a little too intense and austere when the opera is more lyrically varied in its score and libretto, but it’s true that the sense of death is omnipresent, the questions of faith and life discussed by the nuns all coloured by consideration of death. When combined with the remarkable singing, the power of the denouement is simply shattering. A truly unique opera experience.

The Blu-ray quality is superb, certainly in terms of the audio - an exceptional DTS HD Master Audio 7.1 mix - although, as noted elsewhere, there are issues with the image. Rather than being a flaw with the recording or the transfer, the mosquito noise dots actually seem to be part of the staging, caused by a fine gauze screen at the front of the stage. This is often used in stage productions for light diffusion, but rarely throughout a whole opera. Although it seems a strange decision to film the opera with a screen in-between, it’s presumably part of the production design to soften the otherwise harsh direct lighting. The dots are not always noticeable - only when performers are filmed in close-up and when they are towards the front of the stage. There’s little here however that spoils the enjoyment of this beautifully staged and fascinating opera.