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Voix humaine, La (‘The Human Voice’)locked

  • Jeremy Sams


Tragédie lyrique in one act by Francis Poulenc to a libretto by Jean Cocteau after his play; Paris, Opéra-Comique (Salle Favart), 6 February 1959.

La voix humaine was conceived and written (February to June 1958) for the soprano Denise Duval. It is in a single act, has a single set and is written for a single singer. As the curtain rises we see the soloist, a young, elegant woman (frequently referred to as ‘Elle’) stretched out on her bed. It is, as Cocteau says, ‘like the scene of a murder’. She rises and makes to leave but just as she reaches the door the telephone rings. She spends the rest of the opera, some 40 minutes, on the telephone. Mostly she is talking to her lover, but the opera opens with a wrong number and is punctuated with the various vicissitudes of a French telephone system which, even when the opera was written (28 years after Cocteau’s play), was notoriously unreliable. Thus an already desperate conversation is interrupted by crossed lines, losses of connection, and panicky rediallings which only serve to exacerbate the already obvious depression and anxiety of the heroine. Indeed these frustrations seem increasingly relevant, for the couple’s relationship has itself been cut off, and she can no longer, in any sense, get through to him; the fact that we can only hear her side of the conversation serves to underline the situation: having left her, he has nothing to say beyond the most banal concern for her state of mind and health. This state soon becomes clear. She lies about what she is wearing, tries unsuccessfully to conceal that she has attempted suicide, becomes by turns jealous, inquisitive, insanely anxious, self-pitying and nostalgic. It becomes evident that he is not at his home; when she hears jazzy music in the background she chooses to play along with the lie, preferring to blame his neighbours. In the end she lets the telephone take his place, wrapping the cord round her neck and taking the receiver to bed with her; when she knows that communication is impossible she begs him to ring off and is left murmuring ‘Je t’aime’ into an unhearing earpiece....

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