Cocteau Voices, Linbury Studio, ROH2, Covent Garden, June 2011Posted on 18 June 2011
The main attraction was La Voix Humaine by Poulenc, brilliantly performed by Nuccia Focile with the Southbank Sinfonia under the direction of Garry Walker. It was given in English, and Ms. Focile’s enunciation was extremely good, which was important since there are no surtitles at the Linbury. The fact that she retained my attention for her 50 minute solo performance speaks for itself. Poulenc’s opera is a musical rendering of Jean Cocteau’s one-person drama of the same title, showing a woman suffering nervous exhaustion and depression as she talks on the phone to her ex-lover. Or at least that is what she is trying to do, but it all starts with a wrong number, is interrupted by crossed lines, losses of connection and panicky reconnections to the operator. Even when Poulenc wrote his opera in 1958, twenty-eight years after Cocteau’s original play, the French telephone system was still notoriously unreliable. The disconnect with her ex-lover is well shown by her overly anxious self-pity, her desire to hide her state of mind, and her sprawling on the bed, lying about what she is wearing. Well done to Nuccia Focile for her engagingly strung-out performance.
Tom Cairns directed this, as well the first part of the evening, a half hour dance piece by Aletta Collins, which is based on a work Cocteau wrote for Edith Piaf and Paul Meurisse, dissecting their failed relationship. Its title Le bel indifférent was translated into English as Duet for One Voice, but this seems an odd title for a work performed by five dancers with no vocal accompaniment. Cocteau based his work on an earlier radio play titled Lis ton journal (Read your newspaper), and a sixth performer sits in a chair behind a copy of Le Monde. The dancers gave strong performances, showing anguish and inability to communicate, but the whole effect left me nonplussed.
The background soundscape by Scott Walker included the noise of growling animals and barking dogs, and at one point when someone in the audience coughed continuously I wondered whether that was part of the sound effect. Clearly it wasn’t, as the same person gave the same cough in the second part of the evening during the Poulenc opera, but what I really couldn’t stand was the deafening nature of the sound at some points. One acquaintance of mine said she had no intention of ruining her hearing, and blocked her ears, but I think the Royal Opera House has a duty to inform the audience if the composer deliberately produces electronic sound effects above a reasonable decibel level. The acoustics of the Linbury Studio probably render different sound levels at different points, but they should all be checked. As it was I awoke in the middle of the night with my ears ringing, so anyone who decides to attend the first part of the evening should take ear plugs.
Performances continue until June 25 — for more details click here.