Spellbound at Long Beach Opera’s ‘La voix humaine’

by Eleen Hsu-Wentlandt,  Lister reviewer

Starting on April 8, Long Beach Opera (LBO) unabashedly took over the basement club of The Federal Bar in Long Beach for their production of Francis Poulenc’s 1958 opera, La voix humaine (The Human Voice).  French parlour music by Poulenc and Satie was presented in the first act, followed by an uninterrupted hour-long performance of the main feature, sung by soprano Suzan Hanson,  and accompanied onstage on piano by the company’s associate conductor, Voix-142_300Kristof Van Grysperre (pictured right). While Hanson has performed this piece before, in the original French, LBO decided to have it performed in English, without subtitles. Artistic director Andreas Mitisek explained that the “immediacy of understanding” was key.

Filling the dual roles of stage director and production designer for this production, Mitisek put the small triangular stage to perfect use, creating a mid-twentieth century studio apartment belonging to a middle-aged woman, “Elle” (She) — the main character.  As we peer in, we see an inviting white arm-chair as the centerpiece, paired with a petite side table.  On it sits a telephone, the second character in the opera.  Against one wall, a mirror and vanity, and on the other wall, curtains suggest  a window. Elle, in a black negligee, paces the floor; she has the appearance of one who has not gone out all day, too depressed to face daylight.  Her eyes dart cautiously toward the telephone one moment, then stare it down the next.  She is waiting for it to ring, or perhaps to draw enough will to place a phone call herself.  She longs to hear a human voice — that of her true love, the third character in the story, her love of nearly a decade.  

He was, of course, until yesterday, when he departed.  His jacket and trousers are laid out, as is the beautiful red dress of hers that was his favorite, that he had given to her, worn that same day before.  We witness (or eavesdrop on) the final conversation between Elle and her lover, in real time.  Poulenc had especially written the melody to reflect conversational rhythm and tonal expression, so that much of it can be considered recitative, with only one aria-like section. All were sung so naturally, yet every word was crystal clear.

Voix-118_400Throughout, Ms. Hanson’s performance is rich, resonant and expressive on these short speech-like melodic phrases.  For example, even “hello” and “cherie” are thoughtfully given different colors.  “Hello” is the same two notes each time they are sung, but the meaning changes dramatically.  Ms. Hanson’s treatment of the word is at first tentative, as if she’s afraid to start a phone conversation with her love; then commanding as she asks the operator to remove the other mis-connected callers from the line; then quite despondent as she discovers her lover is lying to her when he says he is at home.  

Hanson is an extraordinary actress whose subtle facial expressions or sudden posture changes show the spinning thoughts she entertains while she is listening to her lover’s responses on the telephone.  She is utterly in the skin of Elle as she trudges around the apartment, one hand holding a highball, the other holding her lover’s coat sleeve to her cheek, so as to feel his caress; casually looking out the window or frantically lighting a third cigarette.  And while the tessitura of the piece is in the mid-range, much musical and emotional drama is delivered late, on long, high, beautifully resonant notes that befit the cry of a crushed woman’s heart.  She has us in the palm of her hand.  This is opera at its most intimate and spell-binding.

LBO’s La voix humaine continues through April 15.  Check the website for ticket availability.

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