New York Opera Fest 2019 Review: Divaria Productions’ ‘The Human Voice’

A Magnificent Adaptation Of An Operatic Masterpiece

By Jennifer Pyron
(photo credit: Divaria Productions)

While both Francis Poulenc and Jean Cocteau were members of France’s infamous group Les Six, Poulenc first associated with Cocteau as an admirer of his work. And it was not until 30 years later, when Jean Cocteau’s play “La voix humaine,” written in 1928, became the libretto of Francis Poulenc’s 1958 one-act opera. 

Poulenc kept the same title and composed his opera for a soprano, highlighting Cocteau’s main theme of psychological exploitation. However, what is most important to acknowledge about the story of how this opera came to be, is the fact that Poulenc felt it was best to study his own life experiences first. Therefore, Poulenc processed the loss of a lover to another person, and a constant battle with an opium addiction, himself. And through the course of his soul’s evolution, he composed the music to Cocteau’s libretto and thus this opera.

In the play, Cocteau tells the story of a woman named Elle, who dramatically surrenders to her own internal collapse. She experiences the deterioration of a relationship with her lover and with her own mind. But it is in Poulenc’s version, where one investigates the qualities of “Elle” further and cuts to the core of Cocteau’s psychological chronology. 

Poulenc develops the emotional proficiency of this story’s different phases by means of his nostalgic tonal music, which creates a haunting atmosphere and a vital connection between Elle and her lover. He also cut away scenes that pertain to a social setting. Thus, it is under these circumstances where a scrupulous examination, of “Elle” and the many sides of “her,” begins.

A Closer Look at “Elle”

“The Human Voice,” adapted by director Antón Armendariz Diaz, zooms in for an even closer look at how one can further examine this blended work. From his stage setting, which encapsulates the very inner-workings of Elle’s erratic emotional compulsions, to his finely tuned awareness of Poulenc’s dense music as the main guide, Armendariz Diaz invites one to experience the opera’s main theme surrounding love and supports the understanding of the forms of love, as being equally as important as the purpose of love itself.

American soprano Ashley Bell, portrayed Elle as a woman that is misguided by her own mind and lost in translation at the helm of her own tumultuous emotions. She insanely grasps for a dissolving relationship, as much as she does the telephone, on which her lover calls. Bell proved Elle to be loyal to her mind’s many forms of love. However, to her character’s detriment, she waits by the telephone and wastes away. There is not a single breath taken by her, which does not tether her to the telephone, and to him.

Vocally, Bell crafted a complex Elle, while singing in Poulenc’s recitative-like style. However, it was the tender approach that Bell takes, in effect of her own response to Elle’s mental chaos, that brought this character and entire story to life. Bell’s voice is a landscape of unknown depths, in which she conjured a schizophrenic spectrum that easily navigated Cocteau’s story and Poulenc’s music.

Creating The Atmosphere

Music director and pianist Nicolò Sbuelz played the piano in a way that imitated a luscious and expanding free-form of thought and expression. He was a master at setting the tone for each passage and interpreting the storyline of Poulenc’s music. As the lover, in conversation with Elle, Sbuelz masterfully connected one’s mind to every facet of each character, through his playing. He was the grand interpreter of the production and evoked the core of this story inside-out.

Also, what makes this production most unique is Armendariz Diaz’s setting. One sees two people in a mirrored image. With a frame that separates both sides of Elle’s living room, Armendariz Diaz intelligently placed soprano Ashley Bell on the right side of a screen and actor Michal Gizinski on the left.

Both sides represent the brain. An emotional right side and a logic based left side. Gizinski’s movements mirrored Bell’s, like a mime, as she sang. And when she was done with a vocal passage, sung in French, Gizinski interpreted her phrases in English, by acting out the retelling. This back and forth, between Bell and Gizinski, lulled one into an almost hypnotic trance. Their synchronicity blurred all lines and exposed loves many forms. 

Accompanied by a hearty dose of Poulenc’s tonal ambiguity and passionate fervor, Armendariz Diaz’s overall production focused on the questions of: “What is love?” “Is all the suffering of ‘she’ worth it?” and “Is the form that love takes different for a man and a woman?”


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