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La Voix Humaine/Dido and Aeneas, Opera North | reviews, news & interviews

La Voix Humaine/Dido and Aeneas, Opera North

La Voix Humaine/Dido and Aeneas, Opera North

Poulenc and Purcell make for an enjoyable if uneven coupling

Sharpened acting skills: Lesley Garrett in 'La Voix Humaine'Tristram Kenton

“All we do is talk!” complains the unnamed protagonist in Poulenc’s brilliantly concise one-act opera La Voix Humaine, a faithful setting from late on in the composer’s career of Cocteau’s 1930 play. Banter is what you don’t get; the heroine’s dialogue with her former lover is conducted via an unreliable landline. The audience hears only one side of the conversation.

It’s a chilling, emotionally charged piece – though the latent naturalism is slightly undercut by the unseen presence of a full orchestra underscoring every move.

Poulenc’s irrepressible warmth and melodic gifts are largely downplayed, though having the telephone’s ringing suggested via a trilling xylophone is a witty touch. Poulenc saw the piece as autobiographical, and the edginess is disconcerting. This is a revelatory new production, the opera’s poignancy and caustic humour brilliantly highlighted. Lesley Garrett’s performance is good enough to silence any naysayers – time spent treading the boards in West End musicals has sharpened her acting skills and clarified her diction. She’s wholly credible; trembling nervously at the start, chain-smoking and passing the receiver shakily from hand to hand.

What should be lucid and easy to follow becomes obtuse and slightly maddening

While director Aletta Collins’s background as a choreographer ensures that all her characters move with conviction, it is especially telling with Garrett’s simplest moves – pulling off her wig, stubbing out a cigarette. And her voice, though not enormous, is in good shape, only occasionally overwhelmed by Poulenc’s sporadic louder tuttis. Garrett is at her best in the opening moments, Garrett successfully negotiating every twist and kink while never sounding forced. She sounds more hesitant and uneasy as the work proceeds, nicely mirroring her character’s physical collapse. Only Collins’s visual effects jar slightly. They’re ingenious and deftly achieved, but add little, spelling out crudely what Cocteau and Poulenc achieve so subtly through words and music. Still, this is a welcome chance to savour a minor masterpiece from an underrated composer. But, at 40 minutes, what do you programme it with?

Opera North have chosen another one-acter featuring a forsaken heroine: Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas. It sounds ravishing – lutes and theorbo in the orchestral pit producing bewitching sounds, while the chorus, as usual, is terrific. But Collins’s direction left me baffled, if beguiled, with dancers acting as doubles for Dido and an overabundance of female cast members wearing thick red lipstick, identical ginger wigs and black nightdresses. What should be lucid and easy to follow becomes obtuse and slightly maddening. At certain points you feel you could be watching an oblique take on the video to Robert Palmer’s “Addicted to Love.”

And yet as a series of beautiful tableaux this Dido and Aeneas is mesmerising. The recycling of props, costumes and gestures from La Voix Humaine is cleverly done, and the set’s clean, uncluttered lines provide an effective backdrop. Pamela Helen Stephen (pictured above right with dancers and witches) and Amy Freston as Dido and Belinda are flawless, though my favourite moment was Nicholas Watts’s sweetly eloquent “Come away, fellow sailors”. Wyn Davies conducts both works with affection. An uneven night, but an enjoyable one.

  • La Voix Humaine/Dido and Aeneas at Leeds Grand Theatre on 17, 19, 21 and 23 February then touring to Newcastle, Belfast, Salford Quays and Nottingham
Lesley Garrett’s performance is good enough to silence any naysayers


Editor Rating: 
Average: 3 (1 vote)

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What should have been a delight - Dido and Aeneas - was nearly ruined by two things. 1. The staging was bizarre and confusing, with Dido and her phenocopies forever interchanging places and clothing. 2. Although the orchestra did admirably in suppressing the vibrato, Pamela Helen Stephen as Dido seems to have taken this as a challenge and applied it with a spade, totally inappropriately for such a period piece. Her "Lament", one of the great pieces of music of any period when properly performed, was rendered devoid of any emotion by the vibrato.

I have to disagree profoundly that the production of Dido was 'baffling'. Rather, for me at least it was a compelling and indeed harrowing production in which Dido is the accomplished self-sabotaging author of her own doom. Her harpies populated the stage, tormenting her until finally she sliences them by by her own suicide. What could be clearer, less baffling? Certainly not a 'straight' reading, in which the witches seem motiveless, and Aeneas (and Dido herself for that matter) pointlessly conflicted. Interpreting the witches as proliferating conflicts of Dido's own character also has a hefty musical dividend: the great lament is discovered throughout the whole opera, from its first notes, rather than - as too often - simply overwhelming the whole. Finally, and very obviously, the staging of Dido clearly took as its starting point the psychological world of the first half - ie, Voix Humaine. The connections between the two were logical and convincing. This was not an easy evening at the opera, but as harrowing portraits of disintegration I have rarely seen better.

This comment expresses a similar recognition to my own of the profound psychological truth of a Dido sabotaging her own chances through her haunting, self-destructive other 'selves' who are as much part of her as the persona acting and reacting in the 'real' world. It made an unforgetttable impression on me and has given me some insight into how this process sometimes works in my own life. Thanks for being the only reviewer I have discovered who seems to have understood this interpretation.

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