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'La Voix Humaine' at Castleton

Dietlinde Turban-Maazel, La voix humaine, Castleton Festival, 2013
(photo by E. Raymond Boc)
The Castleton Festival was inaugurated with the chamber operas of Britten, an auspicious choice to make a new summer opera destination stand out from the crowd. Lorin Maazel, a Puccini specialist, soon was turning instead to more standard fare for his summer vacation, chestnut operas that may have more mass appeal but that one can hear lots of places. This summer has Verdi -- Otello, a difficult choice when you are relying mostly on young singers -- and Puccini, but the third offering goes back to the festival's roots in chamber opera, with Francis Poulenc's one-woman, one-act La voix humaine, heard on Saturday afternoon in the festival's original venue, the small theater in the Maazels' old house. Rather than a double-bill with another 20th-century one-act opera, as is often done, the Poulenc was introduced by the performance of an English translation of Jean Cocteau's original play version, from which Poulenc's libretto was derived.

The spoken monologue was delivered by Dietlinde Turban-Maazel, the festival director's wife, in charming German-accented English. In a silken red dress on a set evoking a well-appointed Parisian apartment (scene and costume design by François-Pierre Couture -- a suspiciously appropriate name for a costume designer), she brought the character of the femme délaissée to pathetic life. Gripping the receiver of an old-fashioned black telephone like a lifeline, she wheedled and lied her way through a final phone conversation with the man who has abandoned her, on the eve of his marriage to another woman. Cocteau identifies the character simply as Elle (She), but the coincidence of Cocteau's writing of this play, in 1930, with the publication of Le livre blanc, in 1928, makes one wonder if the monologue is based on something more autobiographical. Le livre blanc, the confession of a man's homosexual attractions, was published anonymously, but it is now generally accepted as Cocteau's work, not least because he later provided a set of illustrations for it. Many of the lines in the play receive interesting twists if the speaker were instead a man, speaking to a lover about to marry a woman.

Other Articles:

Karren L. Alenier, The Human Voice: Poulenc via Cocteau (The Dressing, July 21)

Joan Reinthaler, Castleton Festival’s ‘La Voix Humaine’ and ‘Otello’ (Washington Post, June 21)

Tim Smith, Castleton Festival delivers strong lineup of opera, theater (Baltimore Sun, July 17)

Eve Barnett, Castleton Festival: A Musical Meeting of the Minds (The Georgetowner, July 17)

Roger Piantadosi, The Castleton Festival: right turn, no red (Rappahannock News, July 11)
When Francis Poulenc adapted the play into a short opera, premiered in 1959 at the Opéra-Comique by Denise Duval (watch the film version on YouTube), Cocteau reportedly said that he now knew exactly how the lines of his play were to be delivered (written in a letter to Poulenc -- "Mon cher Francis, tu as fixé, une fois pour toutes, la façon de dire mon texte"). Cocteau's reaction is understandable because seeing the two versions side by side revealed Poulenc's melodramatic opera as the more powerful of the two. Jennifer Black, who was a memorable Micaëla in the 2006 Carmen in Santa Fe and has impressed us many times, was a knockout vocally in the role, with a velvety tone from bottom up to a ringing, fully assured top. Antonio Mendez led the musicians crammed into the small pit, with the harpist relegated to one side of the house, and did some nice things with many details in this beautiful score. Poulenc alternates among many types of sounds -- the jangling xylophone for the phone's ring, jarring dissonances when Elle is upset, suave Romantic sweep when she recalls happier days of the relationship, even a bit of swing for the music she hears in the background of the phone call at one point.

This production will be repeated once more, this coming Saturday (July 27, 3 pm) at the Castleton Festival.

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