La voix humaine; Sinfonietta
Véronique Gens (soprano); Orchestre National de Lille/Alexandre Bloch
Alpha Classics ALPHA899 70:47 mins
Half a dialogue doesn’t sound like promising material for the stage. La voix humaine presents a young woman on the phone talking to her lover. Shrewd as ever, Cocteau knew in his 1930 drama that it was better to imagine the unheard responses prompting her increasing anguish, a psychological decline made all the more devastating in Poulenc’s 1958 opera version, originally evisaged as a vehicle for Maria Callas but ultimately written for his favourite soprano Denise Duval. Poulenc admitted that the protagonist, known only as ‘elle’, was essentially him. Nonetheless, Duval also identified closely, autobiographically even, with the spurned woman. Her extraordinary recording is essentially in a category of its own, but Véronique Gens has now produced a new benchmark among the rest.
More than ably supported by the Orchestre National de Lille under Alexandre Bloch, Gens spans the gamut of emotions, puzzled, hopeful, coquettish, desperately pleading, defiant and, ultimately, broken. Every nuance of the text is clear, yet delivered entirely naturally, so it is a pity the booklet includes only the French, with no English translation.
As it should, the stirring, then deflated conclusion to La voix humaine prompts a desire to sit quietly. Unfortunately, barely six seconds after Gens’s final sobs, the Sinfonietta bursts in. That said, this is a vivacious and singing performance, generally capturing the sparkle of Poulenc in buoyant mood. The Andante cantabile is serene, yet flowing, while the faster movement rollicks along affably. But the Sinfonietta would surely work better as a curtain-raiser to La voix humaine, rather than gatecrasher. Such frustrations aside, though, Gens’s mesmerising performance deserves plaudits aplenty.