The style he initially cultivated seemed typical of a prevailing interwar attitude—of an era grown impatient with what had come to be regarded as the bloated trumpery of Romantic egoism. Poulenc started out as part of the avant-garde circle around Erik Satie, the maverick who had made a career of puncturing holes in the armor of Serious Art.
Still, the glittering surfaces of many of Poulenc’s scores are signs of an attempt at detachment that never fully conceals his longing for “old-fashioned” expressiveness. The critic Andrew Porter once made the sharp observation that, at heart, Poulenc “was a Romantic and sentimental composer who never quite let himself go” and that it is precisely this tension that is “the source of that ambiguity which gives his music its piquancy and distinctive tone.”
La Voix humaine (The Human Voice) is rife with a haunting sense of ambiguity: in its psychological subtexts and in Poulenc’s harmonic language and approach to the singing/speaking/reflecting voice. Indeed, for all the surface simplicity of its plot of a couple’s breakup in the course of a phone call, the work seems to continually raise more questions than it answers. It began as a spoken play by the writer, artist, and filmmaker Jean Cocteau, with whom Poulenc had collaborated very early in his career and who became an unofficial spokesman for the aims of Poulenc and like-minded composers in Paris between the two world wars. Cocteau’s monologue was premiered by the Belgian actress Berthe Bovy in 1930 (creating something of a minor scandal at the time). When it came time for the opera in 1959, Cocteau served as set and costume designer, director, and personal coach to Poulenc’s soprano, Denise Duval.
Poulenc made one contribution to the grand opera tradition with Dialogues des Carmélites (premiered in 1957), the second of his three operas. His first, Les Mamelles de Tirésias (The Breasts of Tiresias, 1947), drew from a gender-bender farce by Surrealist forefather Guillaume Apollinaire and is as utterly different in tone from the other two as one of the above-mentioned Greek satyr plays would have been from the tragic trilogy to which it was appended.
Although La Voix humaine—classified by the composer as a “tragédie-lyrique”—was written for soprano and orchestra, Poulenc prepared a piano version, not just a “reduction” of the score, which he himself performed on occasion. This is the version we hear at SF Opera Lab. (A recording of the piano version is available on a Champs Hill DVD featuring Felicity Lott as Elle and Graham Johnson on piano.)
The relentless close-up on the protagonist Elle as she addresses her unseen “Chéri” in Voix forces Poulenc to deal with several unusual theatrical and musical challenges but never becomes gimmicky. He gives the audience tiny doses of a spectrum of emotional reactions Elle experiences—in his own way, transforming the “prosaic” details of everyday life into a rare, haunting poetry. Rather than a vast, 40-minute-long aria, Voix presents a musical psychogram. Is Elle, perhaps, speaking to herself after all?