A compelling double bill of Poulenc and Schoenberg at Madrid’s Teatro Real

SpainSpain Poulenc, Schoenberg: Soloists, Orchestra of the Teatro Real / Jérémie Rhorer (conductor). Teatro Real, Madrid, 19.3.2024. (JMI)

Malin Byström (Erwartung) © J. del Real

Poulenc’s La voix humaine and  Schoenberg’s Erwartung

Director – Christof Loy
Sets – Christof Loy, Guadalupe Holguera
Costumes – Barbara Droshin
Lighting – Fabrice Kebour

Elle (La voix humaine) – Ermonela Jaho
Woman (Erwartung) – Malin Bystrom

Teatro Real has presented what I found to be a curious program – two one-act operas that feature a single character on the verge of suicide. It opened with Francis Poulenc’s La voix humaine, which has always been a vehicle in which great singer-actors can shine. Jean Cocteau’s libretto still has great dramatic force, although he would surely have modified it now: the telephone has changed a lot since the opera’s 1959 premiere, although human dramas like this one remain constant. Musically, all the dramatic strength is still present, and the work is a true gem as long as it is well-conducted and well-performed.

The staging is by Christof Loy, one of the most important directors of today, and is a coproduction with Teatr Wielki. For La voix humaine, there is a large room with four windows in the back and two large columns on the sides of the stage. I found it disappointing – this is an intimate opera, and nothing is gained by having such a large room. It also creates problems in vocal terms: the protagonist’s voice obviously suffers in this open space.

The musical direction was in the hands of French conductor Jérémie Rhorer, who offered a good reading of the opera and drew a fine performance from the orchestra.

Ermonela Jaho (La voix humaine) © J. del Real

The protagonist, Elle, was played by soprano Ermonela Jaho, who has always been a great artist and proved it once again in her convincing performance. The biggest problem came, as I noted, from the staging: Jaho’s voice had trouble reaching the audience, especially at the beginning of the opera.

The second part of the program, Schoenberg’s Erwartung, also has a single character: the Woman, abandoned by her lover to whom she addresses her monologue. The opera was composed as part of a triptych composed of Pierrot lunaire, Die glückliche Hand and Erwartung, and brings back special memories for me: it was the first program that I had the opportunity to see as a young boy, at the Teatro alla Scala. Although the work is similar in style to La voix humaine, its musical characteristics are different. It is a less chamber-style work than Poulenc’s, and it makes more dramatic, musical and vocal demands.

The Christof Loy set is mostly the same as for La voix humaine. The windows become large doors leading to a garden seen in the background. In this case, the set seemed more appropriate since the libretto refers to a garden in the house and, musically, the opera is not so intimate. For a good part of the opera, the figure of the protagonist’s lover is onstage – it is a matter of taste, but I prefer it if the lover stays in the Woman’s mind.

Jérémie Rhorer gave a brilliant reading of the opera, making good use of the orchestra. The sole protagonist, the Woman, was handled well by Swedish soprano Malin Byström. She is a convincing actress with an appealing voice that reached the audience perfectly.

José M. Irurzun

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