Sarah Gabriel Pours Out Her Heart over the Phone

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Poulenc, La Voix Humaine: Sarah Gabriel (soprano), Christopher Glynn (piano). Cheltenham Music Festival, Parabola Arts Centre, Cheltenham, 5.7.2013.

La Voix Humaine-  Pic credit Phil Stapleton
La Voix Humaine-
Photo Credit Phil Stapleton

Francis Poulenc is one of the featured composers at this year’s Cheltenham Festival, the other being Benjamin Britten: the two composers were great friends. The Frenchman was a versatile composer whose output ranges from church music (Gloria), instrumental music (Organ Concerto), and chamber music (Sextet) to opera (Les Carmelites). Yet he is a difficult composer to pigeonhole; his works can be witty, joyous, nonchalant, pious, tragic and sometimes a combination of all these. You can never be sure what to expect with Monsieur Poulenc.

Fortunately, to commemorate the 50th anniversary of his death the Festival is presenting a good cross-section of his work, including his monologue opera La Voix Humaine. Several leading sopranos have taken up the challenge of portraying the heroine Elle in this 45-minute piece, notably Dame Felicity Lott, Jessye Norman, Dame Gwyneth Jones, Galina Vishnevskaya – and earlier this year Lesley Garrett in an Opera North production. (review) Cheltenham’s version was a more modest affair than Opera North’s. Sarah Gabriel had to make do with just a pianist, a bed, a mobile phone and no changes of costume. Instead she lounged about on the bed in her crumpled pyjamas (pajamas in US!). However her dishevelled appearance affected neither her acting nor her singing, but reinforced the notion of a girl at the end of her tether.

No wonder! In this “end of the affair” opera, to a libretto by Jean Cocteau, Elle learns from Chéri, her lover of five years, that he is off to Marseilles to marry another woman in the morning – and would like his love letters returned! Even though he never appears on stage we learn a lot about him as she pleads with him over the phone to take her back, reminisces about the good times they have spent together and remonstrates with him for casting her off so abruptly. Lying is part of a lover’s armoury: Chéri lies to Elle in order to soften the pain of parting, (or so he says!) while she lies about the clothes she is wearing to show she is unfazed by the rift which has occurred. We learn – as he does – that she cannot bear to be alone, that she has taken a sleeping pill in order to get to sleep. In fact, the truth slowly comes out that she took not one, but twelve; in her depressed state she has attempted suicide.

As if Elle does not have enough to contend with, the telephone service is dreadfully erratic and she is always getting cut off. (This was a common problem in 1950s Paris, it seems.) Whether this is really the phone company’s fault or a deliberate act by her bored ex-lover is a matter for debate. It certainly does nothing to calm her down. Sarah Gabriel, under Edward Dick’s direction, acted the part with tremendous conviction and flair. She held the audience’s attention throughout. At times her voice sounded a little rough due to a throat infection, but this seemed so very much part of Elle’s makeup that not many people noticed. Her performance was a tour de force.

To access the main auditorium at the Parabola Arts Centre the audience had to make their way through a display of animal and marine life – a selection of James Mayhew’s imaginative designs for the Festival’s production of Noyye’s Fludde (Britten) at Tewkesbury Abbey which involved local school children. In another room there were two fascinating exhibitions: watercolours by Robert Goldsmith of musicians who have appeared at the Festival in the past and photographs by Elizabeth Jacobs of last year’s Festival participants in rehearsal. No one can complain that the Cheltenham Festival is not all-embracing!

NB. A sharp-eyed S&H reader pointed out an error in my recent review of Beckett’s Words and Music). Apparently, the musicians were not on-stage behind the curtain but in confined conditions under the stage; the actors were consigned to an even more cramped broom cupboard where they couldn’t hear the orchestra. Bizarre! I apologise for the error.

The Cheltenham Music Festival runs until July 14th.

Roger Jones