Barbara Hannigan transforms The Human Voice, a timeless opera, into a narcissistic gimmick
Operatic plots are rarely more downright non-existent than that of Francis Poulenc’s 1959 solo show The Human Voice, a compact 40-minute work evoking the last anguished phone call from Elle, who was abandoned by her lover. Or is there more than we hear – or don’t hear – on one side of the call?
Things certainly get complicated when you have on board soprano and conductor Barbara Hannigan, who approached her performance at the London Symphony Orchestra by suggesting that it could all be Elle’s fantasy and that there was no -be never had a lover at all.
Fair enough, but you have to feel some empathy for the character, which was difficult here as Hannigan unpacked all his tricks in this short, early-night program as part of the LSO’s Half Six Fix series. The piece is timeless, as human breakdowns and telecommunications failures are still a part of life. Details of Cocteau’s original telephone monologue on which Poulenc based his opera may now be vintage stuff, in its reliance on crossed lines and an operator connecting callers, but a modern interpretation is perfectly possible, given the ease with which today’s cell phones disconnect. The more it changes, as Poulenc would have said.
She may or may not be whimsical, but here she was definitely narcissistic. As Hannigan conducted and sang, acting in a storm with her back mostly to the audience, a giant screen behind the orchestra projected live video (directed by Clemens Malinowski) of Elle’s expressions and gestures. By dividing the focus between vocals and hyperballetic conducting, the performance became all about Hannigan, rather than poor Elle. The star made it impossible to believe in the character’s fate, let alone feel for her.
Never knowingly underperforming, the multi-talented Hannigan is of course a phenomenon, and in a way, his manic energy suited Elle’s mindset. Yet the choreographic contortions on the catwalk and balancing on one leg at the director do little to relieve the monotony of a piece that works best in the hands of a great singing actress who also knows power. of stillness. When, for two brief stints, Hannigan turned to the audience and dialed in the antics, her performance became infectious.
Poulenc was inspired to write this work by soprano Denise Duval, whom he called “the nightingale of my tears”, and he would have expected future singers to color the lines with varying tones. Hannigan’s highly skilled vocals, however, are essentially unremarkable in tone, and her monochromatic delivery was highlighted by amplification, an unfortunate necessity given she had her back to us most of the time.
The LSO played with the requisite sensuality, bringing stillness and resignation to the final pages as well. But with the conductor-soprano announced earlier this week as an Associate Artist of the LSO, the orchestra appears to have become the latest to pander to The Shenanigans’ eye-catching performance style.
Until tonight. Tickets: barbican.org.uk