United Kingdom Poulenc, La voix humaine: Mary McCabe (soprano), David Quigley (piano), Cameron Menzies (director), Linda Britten (gown design). Throne Room, Hillsborough Castle, Hillsborough, 11.2.2023. (RB)
This was the inaugural concert in Northern Ireland Opera’s new Salon Series. Over the next two months the company will be presenting a series of semi-staged works throughout the province. The series will include works from a variety of musical genres including opera, music theatre, art song, lieder and classics from the Great American song book. Each of the works will be presented in celebrated buildings throughout Northern Ireland.
The first concert took place in the throne room of Hillsborough Castle, which is the official residence of King Charles III and other members of the royal family in Northern Ireland. This was perhaps the most opulent setting for an opera or classical concert I have been to, and it was a pleasure to listen to such fine music in these luxurious surroundings. The audience were serenaded by the harpist, Richard Allen, prior to the start of the opera.
Poulenc’s La voix humaine is a one-act opera for soprano and orchestra. The work is based on a play by Jean Cocteau who worked closely with the composer prior to the work’s premiere in 1959. It was suggested that the work would make a great showcase for Maria Callas but in the end, Poulenc decided to cast his friend Denise Duval in the role. The composer knew that Duval had a stormy love life and he shared her addiction to tranquillisers and sleeping pills. The libretto consists of a woman’s last phone conversation with her lover, who now loves someone else. During the call the woman reveals that she has attempted suicide because her lover has abandoned her.
Poulenc’s original score is for voice and piano, but he then orchestrated it for full symphony orchestra. Poulenc did not sanction public performances of the opera in the version with piano accompaniment during his lifetime. However, his niece subsequently gave dispensation to Felicity Lott and Graham Johnson to record this version and live performances have increased in frequency since then.
Cameron Menzies provided minimal staging and props for this performance. The soprano Mary McCabe was decked out in a fine gown, courtesy of Linda Britten, and I was pleased to see that she inhabited the role, bearing her soul for all to see and mentally disintegrating before our eyes. McCabe is clearly an excellent French speaker: her diction was superlative throughout. Every single word was delivered with crystalline clarity, whether it was in a pianissimo whisper or in a howl of emotion. The pacing of the music was first-rate as she navigated her way from Poulenc’s declamatory recitative to his languid heady lyricism and more anguished outbursts. She captured well the spiky edgy quality of the recitative and she brought a luminous restraint to the lyrical reflections. McCabe was impressive across the whole span of her tonal register, producing thrilling high notes and rich colours from the bottom of the register. This was a highly impressive performance of a demanding monologue.
David Quigley did an excellent job accompanying McCabe throughout. He had clearly considered Poulenc’s use of orchestral colour very carefully and he coaxed striking sonorities from the piano. He was very attentive to rhythm and maintained an excellent balance and dialogue with McCabe.
Overall, this concert featured highly impressive singing and playing and was an auspicious start to Northern Ireland Opera’s Salon Series.