Bare-Bones Poulenc Packs a Punch

United StatesUnited States  Poulenc, La voix humaine: Carrie Hennessey (soprano), Alan Hamilton (musical director and piano), Paul Peers (stage director, lighting designer, co-set designer), Joel Yapching (costumes, hair, make-up, co-set designer), Pocket Opera of New York, Benzaquen Hall, DiMenna Center, New York City. 1.6.2012 (BH)

Carrie Hennessey in “La voix humaine” (Photo: David Salazar)

For those listeners weary, angry or depressed over the state of affairs at New York’s larger opera houses, this intimate, low-budget production of Poulenc’s La voix humaine came as a gripping burst of creativity. Nimbly directed by Paul Peers for Pocket Opera of New York, the single-character opera (with libretto by Jean Cocteau) is perfect for the pared-down treatment it received here—in no small part due to some stunning singing by Carrie Hennessey and equally impressive pianism by Alan Hamilton.

The swiftly moving story takes place in an unidentified woman’s apartment, where she is on the telephone with her former lover who reveals he is going to marry another woman. Throughout the hour, Poulenc turns the woman’s frantic “Hello, hello?” into a nervous musical motif, as she pours out what appear to be intimate confessions, flashbacks and personal revelations to her now-ex-fiancé, before killing herself in grief. The role has been sung by noteworthy sopranos through the years, including Gwyneth Jones, Felicity Lott, Jessye Norman and Audra McDonald, among many others. The score, usually done with a chamber orchestra, functions beautifully for solo piano, especially when done with the sweeping, Rachmaninov-style gloss Mr. Hamilton deployed. But the project lives or dies with the singer, and Ms. Hennessey—clad for most of the evening in a tan trench coat and adding just a pinch of Norma Desmond and Salome—rose eerily to the challenge, both musically and dramatically. Whether singing while sprawled on the floor or while gazing anxiously in a mirror, Hennessey found exactly the right emotional tone—never too detached or too florid. And her sound was beautifully calibrated for Benzaquen Hall, reaching a point just shy of piercing several times for emphasis, but never overpowering the space. Her accuracy was impressive, too—always drilling down to the center of the pitch, which only increased the occasional goose bumps.

A huge zebra rug anchored the spartan set, designed by Peers and Joel Yapching, with a black leather swivel chair (as the show opens, the woman’s back is turned away from the audience), a small side table with the telephone, an ashtray and a miniature Glass Menagerie-style globe. An amber floor lamp, full-length mirror, hat boxes and a birdcage draped with a red scarf completed the spare assortment of props. Small floor lamps, facing up, finished the mise-en-scène, with the added benefit of throwing towering, noir-ish shadows on the wall.

Peers added an interesting twist departing from Cocteau’s final scene in which the character strangles herself with the telephone cord. Here, the woman—with Hennessey upping the creepy intensity—dons a red dress that was one of her lover’s favorites, and whisks off the scarf on the birdcage, revealing his severed head. (Earlier in the show, she opened a hat box and absent-mindedly fiddled with a petite, dog-less leash, giving the impression that a small canine had perhaps suffered a similar fate.) Was the entire episode invented in the woman’s mind? Was there actually anyone on the other end of the phone? Hennessey telegraphed warning signals throughout the show—a piercing emotional neediness with just a spark of serial killer craziness—hinting that her lover’s disappearance may not have been entirely his choice.

Bruce Hodges