First premiering on February 6, 1959, “La Voix Humaine” is a one-act opera for orchestra and a sole soprano performer. The work touches on many of opera’s classic themes, such as tragedy and unrequited love, but framing them within the context of telephone conversations shared between Elle and her unheard former lover.
Much of Poulenc’s composition reflects the telephone conversation framework of the opera; there is an emphasis on recitative as well as extended passages which feature no orchestration to accompany to the performer. Though there are still recognizable arias, the focus here is on creating the cadences and atmosphere of a conversation through the phone.
The realism in this work is not limited to merely the style and music; Poulenc, like Elle, turned to the abuse of medication in order to deal with mental turmoil, and thus the composer was able to pour this pained aspect of himself into the character.
Short Plot Summary
The opera begins with Elle, lying motionless on the floor of her bedroom. Though she manages to get up, the phone rings before she can leave.
On the line is her former love. They make small talk at first before the conversation turns to their past relationship, for which Elle believes she is solely to blame for them falling apart. The connection fails and Elle is unable to reach him when she tries redialing; she assumes that he has stepped out to go to a restaurant.
When he calls her back, Elle admits that instead of the mild evening she claimed to have had last night, she attempted suicide by overdosing on sleeping medication. After hearing music coming from his end of the line, Elle comes to suspect that he is with a new lover, but he does not reveals where he is calling from. The call fails once again as Elle becomes increasingly upset.
When her ex-lover calls her back once again, she tells him that she has wrapped the cord of the telephone around her throat; as she obsessively repeats her love she drops the receiver of the phone, strangling herself in an implicitly-successful suicide attempt.
Watch and Listen
The opera world has had fewer actresses on the level of Renata Scotto. Watch her go in this performance from Barcelona in 1996.