La voix humaine


Poulenc La voix humaine opera to a libretto by Jean Cocteau. Recorded 2011 at the Music Room of Champs Hill Records. Soprano Felicity Lott and pianist Graham Johnson perform the piano version by special permission from the composer’s estate (normally the singer is backed by an orchestra). Producer and balance engineer was Alexander Van Ingen; director of photography was Steve Plant. Sung in French. The package has a DVD, a Blu-ray disc, and a very nice keepcase booklet with the complete libretto in French and English. The video was made at 24 frames per second. Released 2013, disc has stereo only. We normally exclude classical music Blu-rays that have only stereo sound. But we made an exception for this because surround sound might be overkill for music with only 2 sound sources and this recording is unique. Grade: B

This opera depicts half of the last conversation between an aging woman and her ex-lover, who has dumped her, no doubt, for a younger girl. You have to figure out what has happened and what the man is saying by hearing only one side of the conversation. If you have been on the losing end of a similar end-of-a-romance phone call, a lot of what she says will probably sound familiar. Cocteau adds wicked twists with a primitive telephone system: there's a party line with strangers sometime butting in, frequent interruptions, and telephone operators to placate. (If you don't know what a party line is, ask someone older.)

Below are a few screenshots, not all in the order as you see them in the recording. All the shots have subtitles — just seeing a bunch of pictures of Lott might get boring. I hope the text will convince you that this 41-minute show is quite interesting.

"Elle" (the only name we have for her) finally gets a call from her lover:


Elle on looking in the mirror:

After an interruption, Elle calls her lover back. She learns he's traveling, and that's bad news:

According to Mike Ashman, writing in the July 2013 Gramophone at page 88, the sound and picture for this title is "first-class." I don't know if he was referring to the DVD or the Blu-ray. I agree on the sound. But the director never got the lighting quite worked out --- too often you see unrealistic shadows over Lott's face.

I found a list of about 21 one-voice operas on the Internet. Among that group, Poulenc and Cocteau seemed to be the most distinguished composing artists. Poulenc apparently intended the piano version to be used for professional purposes only, and he was proud of the orchestral score he wrote for his opera. His literary executor for many years refused to license the work for a piano recording. But after years of pleading, Lott and Johnson got permission, and this is the world premiere recording of the opera with the piano part. 

There are other recordings of this on CD and DVD. But subject title appears to be the only HDVD available in the piano version. Even though it doesn't have the orchestral score, this record in Blu-ray may be the most attractive recording available now. Other women have recorded La voix humaine, including younger ladies like Barbara Hannigan. But Lott probably had a lock on this (maybe still does). Even though she's British, she apparently handles French like a native. She's a great actress as well as singer. And Lott was at the right age to make this because Elle knows the love she's loosing now will be her last.

Cocteau originally wrote this as a one-woman play. What a tough assignment for an actress! I suspect, because of the singing and music in the background, that this will have more emotional impact as an opera than it could possibly have as a play. According to OperaBase, this was the 9th most popular opera staged in France in 2015-16! But it was not produced even once in the US during that season. So if you're in the US, you should get the Blu-ray version as your odds of enjoying this live are puny.

Sorry, nothing of value on YouTube (there is a miserably bad DVD of the whole show).