Poulenc's La Voix Humane is essentially a solo opera, Poulenc setting of Cocteau's one-sided telephone conversation in which a woman talks with a former lover. In this technically impeccable performance, soprano Claire Booth was the desperate woman who, over the course of the call, disintegrates through anxiety, paranoia and the affirmation of her isolation.
Helpfully, King's Place produce a monthly podcast of their events including artist interviews. Booth refers to some source material used in preparation of this performance, including the 1966 film starring Ingrid Bergman (excerpt):
I found Poulenc's setting of the peroration rather unconvincing. Clearly the dialogue (this isn't a monologue or soliloquy) is a simple metaphor for the woman confronting herself at a psychological level. In this the music is functional, mono-dimensional. It neither suggests the man's ripostes nor elucidates her state of mind. There is no concession to the soloist. The piano's only role is mimicking the occasional ring or cut-off tone.
In a curious half-production for the King's Place stage, video artist Netia Jones attempted to address this with a sophisticated video installation, including both pre-recorded and real-time images of Booth. This certainly opened up some alternative visuals to feed the imagination. At the same time however, Booth performed the entire cantata sitting not only in the same place but also the same position, despite having a mobile phone as one of two handsets.
All this is a bit of a pity. The video itself was reminiscent of the Saul Bass title graphic to Hitchcock's Psycho (a 1960 film contemporaneous with Poulenc's opera, 1959). Negative images of overburdened urban telephone poles not only complemented this design but seemed to fit the jazz inflections of Poulenc's music, like shots of New Orleans street corners. The music itself takes flight in the latter half of the cantata and Booth takes the opportunity to sing with a generous line. Chris Glynn was the admirable pianist for this performance.
If I equivocate about the Poulenc it may be to do with the unquestionably brilliant opening to the recital, a performance of Berio's Sequenza No.3. Booth tore through the piece with a technical fire and finesse that left me gawping - it also seemed to work happily with Jones' video which moved at a contrasting breadth of intent than Berio's hysterical montage. On reflection, it also seemed a witty act of programming, as it has the same lurching inventory of sound as an old-fashioned dial-up modem. Inbetween the two vocal works Alasdair Beatson played Berio's Petite Suite, a singing performance that complemented the curiously techincal exporation of rhetoric that was the most rewarding part of the evening.