While indoor opera is making a return live in cities like New York, Chicago, San Francisco and Los Angeles, other opera companies are taking a more progressive approach. Some wait until November or even later to perform, and many present concerts instead of staged operas. Opera Philadelphia chooses to wait until January for its theatrical return and has announced a fall season of new offerings on its hit streaming channel. Although two of the planned projects failed, the first, a one-act opera film and a woman by Poulenc, “La Voix Humaine”, is now available ($ 20 for a one-time rental or free with an annual Channel Pass. $ 99).
“La Voix Humaine” lends itself well to cinematographic processing. Based on a monodrama by Jean Cocteau, the 1959 play plunges into the emotional state of Elle (She), whose lover for five years has left her. During its 45 minutes, their telephone conversation – we only hear his version – gradually exposes the rawness of his loss and his despair. With its ability to vary location, lighting, angle and focus, the film, directed by James Darrah and starring soprano Patricia Racette, offers an intimate radiographic perspective of Elle’s internal turmoil. .
Shot inside the Elkins Estate, a grand mansion from the Golden Age in Elkins Park, Pa., The film opens in Elle’s lavish living room, complete with its grand piano and golden curtains. In a leopard-print fur coat over a dark satin negligee, Elle berates callers who keep ringing on her rotary phone. Finally, her lover’s call arrives. At first, she pretends she is fine, she goes on with her normal life, the breakup is entirely her fault; her tone is soothing, trying to keep her lover from getting angry and hanging up. Then her fragile defenses begin to crumble, and she admits that she tried to kill herself with sleeping pills but called a friend for help after deciding she didn’t want to die alone. She ricochets between insisting that she is okay and revealing the root of her grief. Every time the call is dropped, his anxiety skyrockets. She desperately wants to keep the phone line, her last connection with her lover. It is, she said, wrapped around her neck.
The piece is mainly recitative, its French text reproducing a real telephone conversation, and Mrs. Racette makes the sentences sing, their musical forms articulating their emotional sub-texts, which she sharply reprimands a switch, coaxes, begs or sinks into a reverie, while striving to maintain his dignity. Mr. Darrah’s eloquent leadership makes the most of his expressive face. The close-ups poignantly reveal that she’s not young, adding the suggestion that this romance might be her last. The camera’s perspective changes follow the dramatic arc of the story. When she admits her suicide attempt, she follows her into a cold light bathroom, where she examines her face in a misted mirror. The last shot of the empty living room – its floor littered with crumpled letters, the phone off the hook – suggests the wreckage of Elle’s life is over. Christopher Allen was the sympathetic pianist; Tony Fanning designed the production and Chrisi Karvonides-Dushenko designed the costumes.
Film projects like “The Human Voice” represent a secondary benefit of the pandemic, as opera companies sought new ways to perform and distribute their work. Several of them plan to continue their explorations in film and video even after live performances become more generally achievable. The Boston Lyric Opera, for example, is making a film based on the dance of Ana Sokolovíc’s “Svadba-Wedding” for the end of the season. Cinema has proven to be a fertile medium for small-scale commissions, pairing composers with visual artists to create unconventional opera music videos. Annual Channel Pass) and the poignant “The First Bluebird in the Morning” with music by Carlos Simon (LA Opera) (free).
In another creative use of the film, the charming San Francisco Opera ‘In Song’ series (free), produced and directed by Elena Park, takes opera singers on a journey to their unclassical roots. In a recent episode, mezzo Jamie Barton visits rural Georgia’s valley in the Appalachian foothills where she grew up amidst church, country and bluegrass music. We see the family caravan and visit the church where his father taught him to sing harmony. She teams up with banjo virtuoso Béla Fleck for a little Purcell and a traditional ballad, “Bury Me Beneath the Weeping Willow”, and talks about her bisexual coming out to her family; their unconditional support is history.
In another episode, Mexican-born tenor Arturo Chacón-Cruz returns home to Miami and visits a mariachi conservatory to experience the music that permeated his youth. (“Your culture is your superpower,” he tells the students.) He sings “Granada” by Augustín Lara with their band and, at a family scene, remembers how he once told his young son that life, and therefore singing, is giving love. His interpretation of María Grever’s “Júrame” at the top of his lungs shows this very clearly. Such eye-catching portraits, offering a glimpse of the artists we appreciate on stage, also help position opera as part of a rich musical continuum, just as all of these film projects offer a new level of accessibility to the form. of art.
-Mrs. Waleson writes on opera for the Journal and is the author of “Mad Scenes and Exit Arias: The Death of the New York City Opera and the Future of Opera in America” (Metropolitan).
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