Saturday, 3 October 2009

Poulenc La voix humaine - Carole Farley

Poulenc's La voix humaine is a rarity, because it''s exceptionally demanding. The singer is almost unsupported, carrying the entire opera on her own. It's a 45 minute psychodrama, where the singer has to go through a wide range of extreme emotions until she finally disintegrates mentally. No surprise few sopranos have it in their repertoire. But it has been Carole Farley's speciality, almost the trademark of her career. She's always been courageous, singing Lulu before she turned 20 and pioneering South American art song. Indeed, she put Carlos Lecuona on the map, literally, when she found a cache of the composer's manuscripts in cases stored by his family, and prepared them for performance. Since then lots of singers have discovered Lecuona, and other Cuban and Latin American art song composers because their music is so good, but Farley's recording remains the classic. It's lovely.

Tomorrow 4th October Carole Farley brings La voix humaine to London's Cadogan Hall. She's so closely connected to this piece that her DVD of it really is the one to get. There is also a DVD where Denise Duval sings with Poulenc at the piano, but it comes from a mixed concert where only a few short extracts are included, out of context, and it's not staged, which is part of its impact. Click on the video above for the last minutes of Carole Farley's recording. But you do need the whole DVD because it's so atmospheric it needs to be heard as a whole. Plus, it's paired with a wonderfully witty performance of Gian Carlo Menotti's The Telephone. Unmissable and intelligent contrast.

La voix humaine isn’t easy listening, nor is it meant to be. We’re eavesdropping, literally, on an intimate, private moment, as the protagonist disintegrates emotionally. We’re intruding, yet compelled to follow the drama because we care about the woman as a human being. The text, by Jean Cocteau, is natural and understated, and for that very reason, we connect. Surprisingly, seeing it on film actually helps, because it provides a kind of buffer to the raw emotion, and helps you focus more fully on the music.

In this performance, the quality of orchestral playing is very good, very sensitively attuned to the voice part, and quite fascinating on its own terms. José Serebrier captures the underlying structure of the music well, which matters because the piece unfolds gradually in a series of stages which mirror the development of the narrative, as it gradually dawns on the protagonist that she can’t escape from reality. The tense, stabbing strings sound like an overture to a classic film noir, which is rather appropriate. The woman explicitly calls the telephone “a weapon that leaves no trace”. She may physically die by her own hand, but she’s been pushed to it in a peculiarly sinister, impersonal way. In the film, the introduction is expressed visually as the camera pans from outside the woman’s window into her private hell. We’re voyeurs at a crime scene.

The relationship between playing and singing here is particularly impressive. Even though the music has to accentuate the tension of the scene through sharp, metallic outbursts, it also seems to cradle the voice part. The cymbals crash, but their lingering resonance softens around the voice. Part of the reason this performance works well is that the conducting really brings out the chamber-like restraint in the orchestration. The playing is deft, but refined and supports, rather than competes against the voice. At one point, Farley sings with steely, suppressed tension, while the orchestra builds up to a big crescendo. Then she cries “I feel I can’t go on”, and you know the steely control cannot hold. Farley and Serebrier of course, are an artistic partnership, so the close rapport in this performance springs from very deep roots indeed.

La voix is a tour de force for any singer because it involves so many sudden changes of mood. Moreover, the character of the protagonist is difficult and quirky. This role is a challenge because it involves very intuitive understanding of character before it can be interpreted fully. Farley seems to have developed the character “from within”, understanding how she’s built up her delusions as a kind of armour around her essential fragility. Even before the woman was dumped, she had problems : she even lies about what she’s wearing, as if pretence is second nature. She’s inscrutable because she veils her feelings with many layers, all of which are valid, though contradictory. She’s certainly not stupid, for she immediately picks up she’s being dumped, even though she can’t bring herself to face it. Farley captures the multiple layers of feeling well. When she sings “Oui, oui, je te promêtte”, she infuses the line each time with a different nuance. She pretends to be the “good little girl” her lover used to care for, but she can’t conceal the edge of wariness and anxiety that sharpens her delivery. Similarly, her “tu es gentil” works on two levels: it’s meant to placate the lover, yet it is, at the same time an accusation of quite the opposite. The protagonist keeps finding excuses for her lover’s cruelty. Of course she’s staving off reality, but she’s also motivated by genuine love. When Farley sings “I swear nothing’s wrong”, she sings with grave dignity and tenderness, as if even in extremis, she wants to protect and forgive someone she loves so dearly.

Another reason why La Voix works so well on film is that an infinite amount can be conveyed by body language. Farley is a natural stage person. She moves like a cat, stretching and moving alertly, as if she were “on the prowl”, tense and alert. On film, you can see her face in close-ups, mobile and expressive. When she looks into the mirror and imagines herself old, she seems to shatter, as if we’re seeing her inner image, not the relatively youthful one on the outside. Best of all, she wraps herself around the telephone, crouching and cradling it lovingly, then, wrapping its cord around her body. “I have the cord around my neck” she sings, “your voice is around my neck”. The double meaning is sinister. She screams “Je t’aime! Je t’aime!” with rising desperation, and suddenly the image is cut off, like the phone line and the set is plunged into darkness. The film seems to have been shot in half-light, and there’s a rationale for that, but it’s not easy on the eye, and looks dated. It’s a pity as this is a performance to watch as well as listen to.

In complete contrast, then is the blinding brightness of Gian-Carlo Menotti’s The Telephone. The set is a spotless apartment stuffed with unbelievably naff kitsch. It’s hilarious, a parody of the dumbest TV sitcoms. But that’s the point! A lady named Lucy lives here, an air-head bimbette in a fantasy world where everything is in the right place but nothing means anything. Her boyfriend tries to propose but she won’t get off the phone to her friends, so he has to call her. It’s the ultimate in safe sex, perhaps. The brightness of the set is matched by the perkiness of the orchestration. Hence, Farley’s characterization of the heroine is particularly trenchant. Her diction is clear, crisp and pert, capturing Lucy’s wide-eyed vacuity. There’s a lovely lyrical perkiness in her voice, too. Farley is a born comedienne, who manages to create mindless Lucy convincingly, yet comment on her shallowness at the same time. This is light-hearted material, but extremely well paced and performed.

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