After appearing in two productions during the Summer 2015 season of the San Francisco Opera, soprano Anna Caterina Antonacci has returned to San Francisco for a one-woman show (joined only by Donald Sulzen at the piano) for SF Opera Lab. Performing in the Taube Atrium Theater of the Diane B. Wilsey Center for Opera, Antonacci presented a 90-minute program organized around Francis Poulenc’s one-act opera “La voix humaine” (the human voice), whose libretto closely follows the text of the play of the same name by Jean Cocteau. By way of an “overture,” this opera was introduced by a recital of songs by Hector Berlioz, Claude Debussy, and Poulenc himself.
Cocteau wrote his play in 1930. Always interested in new ways of looking at the world, he conceived it as a dialogue for which the audience hears only one side of the conversation. His device was the telephone, the perfect setting for a conversation in which one hears only a single voice. The drama concerns a middle-aged woman whose lover is leaving her and her reaction to the news. Strictly speaking, there are more than two voices involved in this narrative. This was a time when telephone lines were limited and therefore shared. (They were called “party lines.”) So the woman has to deal with someone else using the line while waiting to hear from her lover. She also has several exchanges with the telephone operator, who oversaw the routing of telephone calls.
All this is now part of a very distant past, which may very well have been beyond the ken of many in last night’s audience. Ironically, though, Cocteau’s underlying message has become more relevant than ever. In 1930 the very idea of ending an affair over the telephone, rather than face-to-face, would have been seen as the height of emotional cruelty. Cocteau saw the telephone as a device that may have expanded connection but with the consequence of undermining the human element of communication, and his play explored that idea in the bleakest of terms.
Poulenc did not compose his opera until 1958, by which time communications technology had made many advances. Nevertheless, the opera is still about the undermining of communication through physical detachment. However, now we have the musical accompaniment to explore the woman’s interior thoughts as the conversation unfolds. The approach is an ingenious one; and, while the overall pace of the music does not always follow the flow of Cocteau’s narrative as effectively as it could, Antonacci went a long way to negotiating the depths of the character behind all of those words.
The irony is that Cocteau’s cautionary warning about “detached” conversation continues to be ignored; and things are worse than ever. The idea of using a telephone call to say “It’s over” now seems pretty tame to a generation whose primary mode of communication is texting. Those willing to ponder what is actually going on in Cocteau’s words and Poulenc’s musical interpretation might, with a little bit of cogitation, get a clue that, while we are more “technologically connected,” we are also more isolated than Cocteau could have imagined. Indeed, many may now be so isolated that they can no longer perceive the full extent of the emotional blow at the climax of this opera, even when Antonacci reinforced that blow with the many devices of her acting skills. (The accompanying program did not identify a stage director, suggesting that Antonacci was responsible for her own physical approach to interpreting the music, complete with the way in which she used the telephone prop.)
The songs that preceded “La voix humaine” made for an imaginatively diverting collection. “La mort d’Ophélie” (the death of Ophelia) is the second of the three Opus 18 songs that Hector Berlioz collected under the title Tristia. Ernest Legouvé’s text basically follows Gertrude’s account of Ophelia’s death in the fourth act of William Shakespeare’s Hamlet. The text gives a faithful account of the narrative, and the music gives a faithful account of the text. The English translation was projected, and the clarity of Antonacci’s French made following the words a relatively easy matter.
Debussy’s “Chansons de Bilitis” (songs of Bilitis) involved repurposing music originally composed as interludes during a reading of poems from the collection of the same name by Pierre Louÿs. Having experienced both the spoken and sung versions of Louÿs’ poems, I have a personal expression for the spoken one, whose erotic qualities are more explicit. Nevertheless, Antonacci definitely knew how to embellish those sung lines with a sensuous rhetoric that escalated the words to another level of connotation.
In contrast to his work with Cocteau, Poulenc set seven poems by Paul Éluard for his cycle “La fraîcheur et le feu” (the coolness and the fire). The texts themselves amount to abstract accounts of images and exercises in symmetrical wordplay. Here again the power of the music owed much to Antonacci’s capacity for clear delivery. Nevertheless, these are poems that require pondering over a book. Trying to process them in “real time” is a bit much for the mere mortal mind, even when Poulenc’s music is there to facilitate!