Directing "La voix humaine" in Lithuania

Panevėžys Music Theater is set to shake up its audiences with the highly anticipated premiere of Francis Poulenc's "La voix humaine" on October 5, 2024. This one-act opera, renowned for its emotional depth and intense monologue, features a libretto by Jean Cocteau and centers on a woman's final phone conversation with her lover.

Shadows and Light in “La voix humaine”

Jean Cocteau, a man with a wonderful sense of humor, was sometimes criticized for using too many theatrical effects in his plays. To prove that he wasn't reliant on gimmicks, he went to the other extreme: writing a play for just a woman and a telephone. There were no scene or costume changes, and no props to hide behind. He named it “La voix humaine” - The Human Voice. Of course, it’s never just that. As the curtain opens, you soon realize that there are characters on the other side of the phone, changing the story of “La voix” with their actions and motivations. Since we can only ever hear the protagonist, simply called Elle (Her), the piece becomes a kind of mystery - it’s up to the audience to fill in the gaps. Who is this woman? What happened to her? Why does she keep lying? And ultimately: what is the story about?

In art, as in nature, the darkest black is often found next to the brightest white. Similarly, “La voix humaine,” the opera, was born from a joke. Poulenc recalls that he was in Milan, enjoying an evening at the opera where Maria Callas was singing with Mario Del Monaco. There was a small scandal: at the end of the first act, Callas pushed Del Monaco offstage to take the bows by herself. At that point, Poulenc’s publisher and friend Hervé Dugardin suggested that Poulenc could turn “La voix humaine" into an opera with Callas in the lead role, “so at least she could take her applause without any fuss.” Poulenc immediately took to the idea but never proposed it to Callas.

It could be claimed that it is an autobiographical work, as both Cocteau and Poulenc dealt in many ways with the same issues as the protagonist of “La voix humaine.” Poulenc actually wrote to his friend: “I’m writing an opera about a woman (me) who is making a last telephone call to her lover who is getting married the next day.” He saw a lot of himself in the character of Elle - emotional imbalance and excess, feeling inferior professionally, and being clingy in personal life. There is no doubt that Poulenc found relief in shedding light on the dark side of his own personality with this opera.

We have given the claustrophobic room described by Cocteau a twist to highlight the isolation and loneliness of Elle. It is a space where a phone gains existential importance, as it is her only connection with the outside world. She finds herself stripped of her freedom, forced to deceive, and faced with suffocation and despair. But are the physical confines of a prison cell real, or just barriers that she must overcome to truly connect with another person? Cocteau and Poulenc have put a wonderful puzzle in front of us, and it’s our task to find the glimmer of hope in the bleakness of Elle’s story.

La voix humaine

Musical director and conductor - Erki Pehk
Stage director and scenographer - Madis Nurms
Lighting designer - Anton Kulagin

Elle - Monika Pleškytė or Jomantė Šležaitė
Orchestra of  Panevėžys Music Theater


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