Review: Poulenc – La Voix Humaine

Francis Poulenc’s La Voix Humaine (The Human Voice) is a one-act opera for a soprano and large orchestra, based on a text by Jean Cocteau. It depicts a woman in a telephone conversation with a former lover, where only her side is heard in the conversation.

This dry description somewhat fails to explain the complexity of the score and the immense demands it requires from the soprano and orchestra. Cocteau’s text is written in almost disjointed phrases, moving from tender longing to outbursts of despair. Poulenc’s music reflects this movement with fragments of musical motives along short lyrical moments (no full aria is formed throughout the piece).

Véronique Gens gives what is, to me, an ideal representation of the opera, fully incorporating the character’s emotional rollercoaster moves from lyrical to dramatic, from soft whispers to manic outbursts – tracks 12-13 are perfect examples.

The players of Orchestre National De Lille under Alexandre Bloch give superb support, in a transparent yet solid blend of Poulenc’s complex orchestration – listen to how the orchestra’s sections form small dialogues with the soprano or play in uniformity when supporting Gens’ melodious parts (track 14). Quite a few sopranos have attempted to perform this opera, including Denise Duval, who worked on the original production with Poulenc. Barbara Hannigan (on DVD), Felicity Lott, and Jessye Norman recorded impressive versions, but this new recording can now be considered among the best.

The Lille’s transparency and blend are apparent in the Sinfonietta that follows. I wasn’t entirely convinced by the decision to group the two works, or for that matter, position the sinfonietta after the opera. As impressive as the individual playing is, the transparency gives the work a lighter feel than desired for a work already full of lightness. This is especially true in the opening movement, though the concept works perfectly in the second Molto Vivace, where the sophisticated dialogues between wind and string come to full realization. Charles Dutoit and the Orchestre National De France (Decca) is still a benchmark for this work, and I’ll return to the current album mainly for Gens’ La Voix Humaine.

Nice recording engineering in La Voix Humaine, and the close balance in the Sinfonietta suits the interpretation. A shame that the booklet includes a brief explanation of the work in original French with a somewhat awkward English translation. The opera text, so important to follow, only appears in the French original, asking the non-French speakers to seek the translation elsewhere. Overall, a highly impressive La Voix Humaine and an enjoyable Sinfonietta.

La Voix Humaine
Veronique Gens – Soprano
Orchestre National De Lille
Alexandre Bloch – Conductor
Alpha, ALPHA899

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