Stage Door Review 2019

(La) voix humaine

Feb 17, 2019

✭✭✭✭✩

by Francis Poulenc, directed by Aria Umezawa

Against the Grain Theatre, Gallery 345, 345 Soraunen Avenue, Toronto

February 16, 2019

Lui: “J’ai ta voix autour de mon cou”

Against the Grain Theatre, Toronto’s acclaimed independent opera company, has begun an exciting new programme – the AtG Incubator Initiative. Its first project, styled as (La) voix humaine, casts a tenor instead of a soprano in Francis Poulenc’s 1959 setting of Jean Cocteau’s 1930 monodrama La Voix humaine. It was a huge success and Jacques Arsenault, who proposed the project, gave a tremendous performance as Lui (Elle in the original). This kind of re-assessing of what voice type is permitted to sing what role opens up a whole range of fascinating new possibilities in opera. Arsenault’s idea of recasting La Voix humaine for tenor is so brilliant, it is sure to catch on elsewhere.

Before the performance began AtG Artistic Director Joel Ivany interviewed the stage director Aria Umezawa, former Artistic Director of Opera 5, about her view of the effect of the change of casting. She claimed that the previous times she directed the opera, she was concerned about how the character Elle is depicted. She claimed that replacing Elle with a man redressed the “gender imbalance” in the work. 

Gender imbalance is a loaded phrase and assumes that men have have more power and privilege than women. The problem is that that notion does not seem pertinent to Poulenc’s opera. There is an imbalance of personality between the two character – Monsieur, who has just broken off a five-year relationship with Elle, and is concerned but unemotional about his deed, and Elle who is still distraught. The fact that the opera works so well with a tenor as the main character simply proves that the difference in personalities is more important that the difference in genders. In fact, given that Cocteau was homosexual, it’s not impossible that he original conceived of the break-up as between two men and then made it more socially acceptable for his time by making the relationship heterosexual. 

There is a gender imbalance of a completely different sort in the original opera in that Cocteau’s play and Poulenc’s opera focus entirely on the woman’s side of a telephone conversation. All we learn of what Monsieur says is through Elle’s repetitions of and reactions to his unheard words. Poulenc wrote the piece for his favourite singer, Denise Duval. What Arsenault’s idea demonstrates so well is that a virtuoso piece for soprano can just as well become a virtuosos piece for tenor.

In her opening remarks Umezawa also mentions that Monsieur in her reimagining of the opera has left Lui for a woman. Yet, Poulenc did not choose to set every line of Cocteau’s play. In the play Monsieur phones to tell Elle that he will be getting married the next day, news that he knows will certainly plunge her into deeper despair. 

Significantly, Poulenc excises all reference to Monsieur’s new love except for Elle’s one use of a plural “vous”, which, for all we know is her supposition. Not only does this obscure any notion that Monsieur was duplicitous toward Elle during their relationship, but it means the opera’s focus is entirely on the break-up itself. Unlike the play, Monsieur’s message does not add new pain to Elle’s suffering, rather it turns Monsieur’s call into one of compassion. Monsieur is trying to reassure himself that Elle is able to be strong and brave. Indeed, what Monsieur seems to fear is that Elle was so distressed when he broke off their relationship that she might attempt suicide. As we find out, Elle has made a half-hearted attempt at suicide but does not intend to repeat the act.

Poulenc subtitles the opera a “tragédie lyrique”. What gives the opera the substance of tragedy is that the more we learn about Elle, the more we understand what must have impelled Monsieur to break off the relationship. In a key passage Elle sings, “Voilà cinq ans que je vis de toi, que tu es mon seul air respirable, que je passe mon temps à t’attendre, à te croire mort si tu es en retard, à mourir de te croire mort, à revivre quand tu entres et quand tu es là, en fin, à mourir de peur que tu partes”. In claiming that she has had no life other than being with Monsieur we see that her all-consuming love was suffocating. Elle seems to have given all her love to Monsieur and left none for herself which is why she so embarrassingly claims she is stupid when he objects to anything she says.

Having seen both the play and the opera several times before, I can say that the opera is a far more satisfying experience. Poulenc’s music fills in all the silences of the one-way conversation in the play and help us feel the changes of mood that Monsieur’s responses cause in his auditor. 

Under Umezawa’s detailed, thoughtful direction that skilfully avoids any hint of melodrama, Jaques Arsenault gives a revelatory performance acting in minute detail everything Lui experiences throughout the 45 minutes of the opera. Arsenault is blessed with a warm, rich, multi-hued tenor that he uses carefully to shade every phrase that Lui utters from rage at party line eavesdroppers to the tenderness of fond memories of his past with Monsieur to desperation and self-abasement. Because of Arsenault’s fine acting and extraordinarily sensitive singing This is the first time I felt caught up in the main character’s agony and felt along with him every change of emotion he expressed. 

The piano accompaniment of Topher Mokrzewski, AtG’s Music Director was passionate and brought out with equal expressivity the discordant sections identified with Lui’s inward struggles and external disruptions as well that the frequent lyrical passages associated with Lui’s calm reflection. 

Given that the opera represents a 45-minute-long telephone call with a few outside interruptions, Umezawa as director has imaginatively used every part of the area of the performance space for Lui’s wanderings while singing and has had Lui adopt a wide variety of positions expressive of the his changing emotions – from standing upright and defiant to curled up in fetal position on his table. Often she brings out the complexity of Lui’s character by having him gesture in a manner contrary to what he sings, striking the wall in frustration, for example, when he professes agreement. 

I was greatly relieved that Umezawa did not fall into the temptation of having Lui commit suicide at the end of the conversation. Having him repeat “Je t’aime” to the empty air is much more powerful and helps underscore the existential nature of the opera. Even though the text demands the use of a land line and a time when people subscribed to a telephone service that others could listen in on, Cocteau’s and Poulenc’s interest in the telephone is not so different from what 21st century psychologists say about people’s use of social media today. The supposed connectedness that being online provides actually causes people a sense of loneliness and isolation. 

La Voix humaine, both play and opera, already senses this with the old-fashioned telephone itself. The two main characters are already isolated from each other and the line connecting them also prevents each from reading the other’s expression. When Lui wraps the telephone cord around his neck as sings “J’ai le fil autour de mon cou. J’ai ta voix autour de mon cou” we can only feel how hopeless any real of connection is now between the former lovers.

Ivany and Umezawa claimed that (La) voix humaine was a project in its first stages of development. But from the passion and precision of Arsenault’s and Mokrzewski’s performances the project felt as if it had already reached its final form. Let’s hope that AtG reprises this exciting experiment so that more people can experience its power. 

Christopher Hoile

Note: This review is a Stage Door exclusive.

Photos: (from top) Jacques Arsenault; Denise Duval in La Voix humaine. © 1970 Dominique Delouche.

For tickets to Against the Grain, visit againstthegraintheatre.com.